How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Donald Rumsfeld
‘The Unknown Known’ is a case study in abstraction
“Why are you talking to me?” Errol Morris asks.
“That’s a vicious question,” Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. secretary of defense says. “I’ll be damned if I know.”
Then Rumsfeld laughs and grins. Danny Elfman’s music swells. The credits roll. I walked out of the theater feeling unsettled, my head still full of questions.
This is director Morris’s new film The Unknown Known, an extended interview with Rumsfeld that is both fascinating and troubling.
Rumsfeld is a career politician—all slick talk and grins. Despite his retirement from public life, Rumsfeld does not seem at all interested in the kind of confessional and nuanced question-and-answer session that made the 2003 documentary The Fog of War famous.
In the previous film, Morris interviewed hesitant former defense secretary Robert McNamara. But Morris drew McNamara out, asked tough questions and received nuanced and complicated answers on subjects ranging from the carpet bombing of Tokyo to the body count-driven mania of Vietnam.
McNamara made disastrous decisions and knew it, and the documentary detailed his attempts—not always successfully—to reckon with the heavy moral burdens wrought by his participation in the taking of thousands of innocent lives.
Yet if Rumsfeld’s mismanagement of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weigh heavy on him, then he isn’t about to let Morris or the audience know.
I’ve never seen anyone so deftly defeat their interrogator. Rumsfeld deflects and dances. He answers Morris’s questions with the same kind of aw-shucks folksy bullshit he flung at the press core during his days as secretary.
I felt as if I were watching a late season episode of Netflix’s House of Cards. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is so reminiscent of Rumsfeld that I can’t help but wonder if the show’s writers incorporated pieces of Rumsfeld’s story and personality into Spacey’s popular anti-hero.
Underwood and Rumsfeld are both career politicians. Both offered resignations to their presidents and were refused. Both have an uncanny ability to turn their enemies against each other and manipulate situations to their advantage. Neither men can be trusted, either.
Programmed by television’s recent parade of lovable anti-heroes, I found myself inadvertently rooting for Rumsfeld. We never see Morris’s face, only his incredulous and nasal voice. Rumsfeld is charming and charismatic. He smirked. My heart melted.
Which is bullshit. It’s not the reaction I want to have. It’s not the reaction we should have.
But I’ve never been so fascinated and so annoyed during a documentary. I was fascinated because Rumsfeld is fascinating. History, blame and responsibility slide off him. He pursued power for the sake of power and succeeded. For him, the tragedy of his life is that he did not soar as high as he wanted.
I was annoyed because Morris tries and tries again to get Rumsfeld to trip up and feel something he’s not going to feel. Morris searched for a soundbite he could use to extrapolate something deeper.
It isn’t there. There is nothing behind Rumsfeld’s tooth-filled smile and slicked-back hair. This is the face of the politician grown in a tube. The perfect specimen: Hungry for power, able to cry on command and assuming no blame. He’s also careful in his use and abuse of power. And will never let anyone catch him saying the wrong thing.
So why did Rumsfeld consent to this interview? Why talk at all? Morris has said it’s vanity. But Rummy would probably not admit it.