Film Review: ‘The Unknown Known’


With The Unknown Known (2013), inimitable documentarian Errol Morris has taken the age old adage “Give em enough rope” before expanding it into a timely political critique; an oft-infuriating but deft tête-à-tête with former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. In a performance that even ‘Teflon Tony’ Blair would be in awe of, Rumsfeld attempts to talk his way around a number of exchanges with Morris, who endeavours to tangle the Republican up in his own web of words. A gladiatorial bout for the Information Age, we may not come out knowing a much more than we did going in, but it’s hard to dismiss the historical value Morris’ interrogation may have in the future.

Morris seeks not to befriend his opponent nor lull him into a false sense of security. From the off, Rumsfeld is pinned down into explaining the abstract concept of “snowflakes” – an enormous archive of electronic and paper memos he complied while in Congress, at the White House, in business and during two stints at the Pentagon. Though cold, hard facts are obscured from clear sight by Rumsfeld’s numerous asides and deflections, by exposing the his slippery subject for what he is – a glorified gatekeeper whose undoubtedly forgotten more government secrets than one could ever hope to digest – Morris highlights the terrifying reality of modern politics, where wars are started and sustained based on scraps of data and interpretation.

But what is an “unknown known”? According to Rumsfeld – sifted through his own filter of Orwellian doublespeak – these would be things we didn’t know we knew. His infamous 2002 news debriefing was the source of both mystification and wild derision, a prime example of how labyrinthine the procedure of collecting and relaying highly sensitive intelligence has become in the 21st century. Seemingly out of place interjections of a gently rolling ocean are only put into context in the film’s latter half, when we learn that Rumsfeld had installed in his residence a soundproof walk-in wardrobe for receiving covert messages (the subjects of which he’s predictably loathe to reveal on camera). Whilst some may decry Morris’ seemingly pandering approach, rarely has such a high-ranking, trusted member of the Nixon/Ford/Bush Jr. administrations insinuated so much by saying so deceptively little.

A clear admonishment of information overload, Morris’ The Unknown Known would perhaps sit best in a double-bill alongside Kubrick’s hilarious (and now vaguely plausible) war room satire Dr. Strangelove. Both films entertain as they enrage, as smirking harbingers of doom play with the lives of millions they will never even meet. Absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but as the West transforms evermore rapidly into one giant bureaucracy – where even those at the very top are slaves to the white collar, paper-pushing hordes below them – how can global stability possibly be maintained. With several incisive nudges from Morris, Rumsfeld – with his “known knowns”, “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” – arguably serves up the depressing answer on a silver platter.

The Unknown Known is released in UK cinemas on 21 March 2014. For more info, visit

Daniel Green

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