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The Unknown Known documentary review: let Rumsfeld tell you his evil plan

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The Unknown Known green light

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.

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Region 2
release date:

Aug 11 2014
Amazon UK DVD
iTunes UK VOD
US/Canada release date: Apr 04 2014 (VOD same day) | UK release date: Mar 21 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated BoE for a disturbing depiction of the banality of evil
MPAA: rated PG-13 for some disturbing images and brief nudity
BBFC: rated 12A (disturbing images, brief nudity)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • David

    In all fairness the disintegration of the Middle East that we are currently witnessing was probably inevitable. The borders imposed by the French and the British were artificial and the states have always been on borrowed time.

    That being said, Donald Rumsfeld was a mega douche. I wouldn’t trust that idiot to run a hot dog stand without hundreds of people being killed. Gen. Shinzeki told the administration that they would need at least 500,000 troops to keep Iraq stable and he was forced into early retirement. I hope Errol Morris challenged him on why the hell they thought they would need so few soldiers and resources to stabilize a country the size of Texas surrounded by radical regimes that would be jockeying for power.

  • Beowulf

    Yes, Iraq should be three (tribes) states. I agree that it would have eventually fallen apart. But we didn’t have to send a lot of young men and women in to get killed or maimed for the rest of their lives (oh, that’s right: they can go to a VA hospital and get right in!)
    I’ll see this on BRD, not in a theatre. Sorry, Errol….

  • Max Urai

    “Mega douche” sounds like a bad metal band

  • Danielm80

    I finally got to see this last night on the History Channel. Toward the end of the film, Rumsfeld kept looking up words in the dictionary, in an effort to prove that, technically speaking, the U.S. government and its military hadn’t done anything wrong. It made me feel perversely happy as a writer, because it was a demonstration that words really are powerful. If you choose your terms precisely enough, they can affect government policy for a generation to come. But then I saw this article:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/21/world/middleeast/in-a-clash-between-israel-and-gaza-both-sides-use-social-media-to-fire-epithets-and-hide-behind-euphemisms.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=HpSum&module=a-lede-package-region&region=lede-package&WT.nav=lede-package

    It makes the same point, much more directly, but I can’t be even the slightest bit happy. It just makes me think: If you’re quibbling over words, you’ve already lost the war.

  • Danielm80

    I rewrote that comment multiple times–because words are important–and I’m still not sure it says what I want it to say. It may even be slightly offensive; I’m comparing two very different wars, and different types of propaganda. I posted it out of frustration over the futility of war and the horror of propaganda. I’m going to leave it up as written. Sometimes searching for the perfect word is the most important thing in the world, and sometimes it’s important just to say something. After so many years of watching people kill and demonize each other, with no end in sight, an imperfect cry of rage is the best I can do.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com/ MaryAnn Johanson

    To me, Rumsfeld’s dictionary nonsense is just a way for him to justify what he did. It’s all semantics and Newspeak. You know, it’s not torture, it’s enhance interrogation techniques, so it’s fine.

    I wish I believed in hell, so I could believe that Rumsfeld would burn in it. But he won’t.

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