- You may recall an infamous news conference in February 2002—a year before the invasion of Iraq—when reporters packed the Pentagon Briefing Room, hoping to wring some answers about Saddam Hussein's shadowy weapons of mass destruction program from senior defense officials. Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, decided that the reporters did not deserve the benefit of the English language.
- "As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know," Rumsfeld said. "We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know."
- The remark was, at the time, widely mocked. But in time, it became so synonymous with Rumsfeld's tenure that he eventually used it to title his memoir.
- Now, Rumsfeld, years out of office, is the subject of a new documentary by Errol Morris, the filmmaker who captured another infamous defense secretary, Robert McNamara, expounding upon Vietnam and the state of modern warfare in The Fog of War.
- But Rumsfeld is no McNamara. In Morris's new film, The Unknown Known, he's trying to get answers out of a notoriously slippery talker. Morris has a series of blog posts at the New York Times this week, describing his 33 hours of interviews with Rumsfeld. "I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started," Morris writes. "A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?"
- Some criticis contend that Morris wasn't combative enough with the evasive Rumsfeld. "Morris allows him to play the crafty statesman on his own terms, and never really makes him uncomfortable, even when he's faced with the contradictions or absurdities of his statements: notably, his calm description of Guantánamo as simply a "well-run" prison," writes Jonathan Romney at the Guardian.
- But others say the film reveals more about Rumsfeld's motives—and his intelligence. Mother Jones' David Corn says the "zen of Donald Rumsfeld" is on display, "which is merely camouflage for stupid mistakes that caused mayhem and death."
- Maybe the film provides necessary context for a quote that, over the years and "decoupled from context," people began to think was smart.
- Or perhaps it's just a chilling portrait of a man who—eight years after he was fired by George W. Bush—is still defending the failures of the Iraq war.
- "The scariest thing is that what you see here is what you get," Morris told the Economist. "There is nothing behind that façade, just endless quibbling about vocabulary. Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil”, that it’s not the presence of something but the absence of something that makes evil men. I feel in a way that I’ve made a horror movie."
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