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Errol Morris Talked to Rumsfeld for 33 Hours. All He Got Was ‘The Unknown Known.’

The new documentary fails to elicit answers to the most important, and still unresolved, questions about the Iraq War

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Errol Morris and Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known (Nubar Alexanian)
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Morris does push Rumsfeld into acknowledging an inconsistency when the definition he offers of “unknown knowns” differs from how his memo has defined it. “Yeah,” Rumsfeld cooly concedes. But the memo, he quickly adds, is “backwards.”

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Morris is shrewd enough to understand the game. At some point in the making of this documentary, he must have sensed that Rumsfeld would reveal very little. We do not see Rumsfeld in one of the legendary tantrums that led Richard Nixon, of all people, to call him “a ruthless little bastard.” In State of Denial, Bob Woodward describes Rumsfeld’s dressing down of Adm. James L. Holloway, the chief of naval operations from 1974 to 1978, in front of 40 other senior military officers and civilians over congressional testimony that Holloway had given and attempted to explain. “Shut up,” Rumsfeld tells Holloway, who shared the episode with Woodward. “I don’t want any excuses. You are through and you’ll not have time to clean out your desk if this is not taken care of.”

Nor do we see the tormented Don Rumsfeld who emerges in a memo he wrote only two weeks after Sept. 11, following a long, difficult day at the White House with which Mark Danner opens his riveting portrait in the New York Review of Books. “Interesting day—NSC mtg. with President,” Rumsfeld’s memo begins. Asking to see his SEC DEF alone, Bush instructs him to develop a plan to invade Iraq “outside the normal channels”—“creatively so we don’t have to take so much cover [?].” If Morris asks Rumsfeld to clarify this exchange, it must have wound up on the cutting room floor. Nor does Rumsfeld read the latter part of that same memo in which Bush, a recovering alcoholic, inquires about Rumsfeld’s son, who was then struggling with drug addiction. “I broke down and cried,” Rumsfeld writes. “I couldn’t speak—said I love him so much. He said I can’t imagine the burden you are carrying for the country and your son.” Bush stands and hugs him, and Rumsfeld succumbs. “He is a fine human being—I am so grateful he is president. I am proud to be working for him.”

Morris’ film, “brilliant and maddening,” as Danner calls it, has no such emotional moments. And without any emotional or intellectual epiphanies, the long film feels even longer. There are far too many shots of snow globes and mystifying waves in a sea. Danny Elfman wrote the melodramatic score, which is more appropriate for a horror movie than Morris’ hunt for the real Don Rumsfeld.

In the end, Morris suggests, even he may not have been satisfied with his ambitious effort. “After having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld,” he writes in the Times, “I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started.” Indeed, crucial questions remain unanswered: Why did Rumsfeld believe the intelligence assessments he relied on to justify the war when he had spent a lifetime challenging the intelligence community’s earlier shoddy products? Why did he seemingly pay so little attention to postwar planning? Why did he dismiss the importance of the looting of Iraq, which helped lay the ground for the insurgency? Did he ever speak to Bush, the president he loved so much, to challenge E. Paul Bremer’s fateful decision to disband the Iraqi army? When did he begin to have grave doubts about the war’s progress? Why did he continue to back his senior military commanders’ denial that an insurgency was taking root as American and Iraqi casualty rates were climbing? And so on …

Morris fails to get Rumsfeld to answer them. For a long while, Morris writes, “I thought he’s hiding something. And then there was a terrible thought. He’s hiding nothing. There’s nothing there to hide, simply because there’s nothing there. It’s all vanity. It’s all a kind of performance art. It’s all gobbledygook. … And yet people fell for it.” Viewers predisposed to hate Rumsfeld—and judging by the responses to Morris’ haiku tweets, there are many—may conclude, as does Morris, that his film has exposed Rumsfeld as the callous, self-satisfied, empty self-promoter they imagine him to be. But those who watched the film hoping for insight into a complex man’s character and thinking, or the origins and progress of the Iraq and Afghan wars, may consider Morris’ movie a lost opportunity—one of those “unknown knowns.”

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Errol Morris Talked to Rumsfeld for 33 Hours. All He Got Was ‘The Unknown Known.’

The new documentary fails to elicit answers to the most important, and still unresolved, questions about the Iraq War

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