There’s a fabled quote from 2004 written in The New York Times by Ron Suskind, quoting an unnamed aide to the George W. Bush administration (later attributed to Karl Rove): “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities” Whilst watching Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known (2013), one can’t help but think that his subject, former United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, is the living embodiment of the ideologies embedded in said quote. Taking a similarly structured approach to 2003’s The Fog of War, here Morris charts his interviewee’s long political career.
Morris’ latest takes its title from Rumsfeld’s famous speech of 2002, when a journalist questioned him about the presence (or, as it turned out, absence) of WMDs in Iraq. Rumsfeld is interrogated by the off-screen Morris and is nearly always possessing of a wry, knowing smile. He never loses his composure, either batting off questions with a quip or with a quagmire of sentences designed to rope-a-dope the inquisitor. These interviews, which make for captivating viewing, chart the various significant epochs in Rumsfeld’s lengthy tenure, which stretched from the Nixon administration right up to his retirement in 2010, navigating the Watergate scandal, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, 9/11, the Second Gulf War and the numerous fiery controversies surrounding the treatment of inmates at Guantanamo Bay.
There’s a great deal of attention paid to the infamous memos – or “snowflakes” as they’re dubbed – that Rumsfeld made. What quickly becomes apparent from these memos is Rumsfeld’s aptitude as a political careerist as well as his ability to safeguard his position, including truly revealing memos to Condoleezza Rice. In one particularly pertinent moment, Morris asks Rumsfeld whether he believes he has affected the course of history, to which he responds with a mischievous grin: “Obviously, you don’t control history. And you are failing if history controls you.” This reveals much about Rumsfeld, but not quite everything. There’s a distinct sense that he’s loomed in the wings as a puppet-master of sorts, and to a greater or lesser degree has at the very least been involved in shaping America as a key Republican heavyweight.
This is a documentary that explores Rumsfeld as a master of words (only a fool would believe his riddle-like sentences are the words of a bumbling buffoon), and also reveals how he chooses to perceive reality. He’s a man who has crafted a reality for himself; one where he believes that what he is doing is in the best interests of his country, yet with worryingly little regret as to whether his actions were either wrong or indeed morally dubious. Ultimately, Morris never quite breaks through Rumsfeld’s defences, who remains something of an enigma behind that politician smile. As The Unknown Known reaches its climax, it could even be argued that it’s the subject and not the director who’s holding all of the aces.