The Unknown Known documentary review: let Rumsfeld tell you his evil plan
This documentary interview with Bush-era insider Donald Rumsfeld is like a horror movie with a calm sociopath at its center.
I’m “biast” (pro):
big fan of Errol Morris…
I’m “biast” (con): …but not a fan of Donald Rumsfeld
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
As Iraq disintegrates before our eyes, it’s suddenly even more vital to listen to what Donald Rumsfeld, one of the architects of the mess in the Middle East, has to say for himself. It’s pretty ugly… not that Rumsfeld sees that, of course. This feature-length interview with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) is horrifying for how it demonstrates Rumsfeld’s complete lack of awareness of the enormity of his own actions.
Or else — this is worse, and I suspect it’s closer to the truth — we are watching the justifications and dismissals of a calm sociopath who doesn’t care what impact his actions have had. The shit-eating grins he drops after what he thinks are nuggets of wisdom may be the tell.
Rumsfeld appears to believe that mostly what he did as George W. Bush’s secretary of defense — and almost certainly one of the puppeteers of Bush’s presidency — came down to writing a lot of memos: “There have to be millions,” he says. One of those memos? Something something something oust Saddam Hussein… in July 2001. In case you were in any doubt that 9/11 was but a pretext for an American invasion of a sovereign nation that had nothing to do with that attack, Morris makes it perfectly plain here.
Morris just generally nails Rumsfeld as a liar, an incompetent, a dolt, a monster, or all of the above, just by letting him display his cocksure confidence as he comfortably reveals the most outrageous things. Like how he never read those infamous memos offering legal justifications for the torture of inmates at Guantanamo Bay. (Morris’s incredulous “Really?!” is brilliant. I’ve never seen any other journalist confront Rumsfeld like this… and it does not perturb Rumsfeld at all.) Anyway, no one was waterboarded at Guantanamo, so everything there was awesome. Rumsfeld’s explanations of how torture isn’t torture are, well, pretty tortured. His “unknown unknowns,” the things we don’t know that we don’t know when it comes to foreign policy and an enemy’s — or potential enemy’s — plans, capabilities, and actions is a legitimate notion, however inelegantly Rumsfeld described it. But he uses this concept to justify anything and everything. Perhaps it sounds to a sociopathic mind like something that will inspire enough fear in us muggles to give over our approval of drastic action that would otherwise be too appalling to consider. (And maybe it worked.)
Oh, and in case you forgot, Morris reminds us that Rumsfeld was also a player in the Nixon and Ford White Houses, and was also secretary of defense during the height of the Vietnam War. He arranged that infamous evacuation by helicopter of Saigon. You’d think he might have learned a lesson from this.
Alas, no. This is a chilling portrait of a man who has wielded the imperialistic military power of the United States like he was playing Risk, and has presided over perhaps the two most ill-fated military adventures in U.S. history. And he appears to have no regrets. “Some things work out,” Rumsfeld says with a shrug. “Some things don’t.” Cue the shit-eating grin.