TIFF Review: 'The Unknown Known'

The exponentially accelerated pace of contemporary history is illustrated in Errol Morris’ two documentaries about former United States secretaries of defense who presided over the nation’s most disastrous wars. “The Fog of War” revisits Robert McNamara 35 years after he stepped down from his post and nearly 30 years since the Fall of Saigon. By contrast, “The Unknown Known,” Morris’ latest documentary, stares into the uncomfortably cheery face of Donald Rumsfeld, who resigned his post less than a decade ago and whose contribution to America’s military policy pushed forward a conflict that has yet to formally end.

This history of the present, a post-mortem on a still-living event, is reflected in the physical and tonal differences between defense secretaries. Rumsfeld, 81, looks to be in his mid-’60s, and his chirpy, high voice takes off a few more years where McNamara’s guttural rasp pushes him even closer to the threshold of 90 he was rapidly approaching in 2003. McNamara, filmed at an angle, slowly orients the film into straightforward admission, but Rumsfeld, still so close to his actions that he can continue to shroud them in deception and distraction, slants the film even as the camera places his head perpendicular to the x-axis. To compare the weary, calcified McNamara to the vivacious and spry Rumsfeld is to see the shortening of a cycle, setting up another to repeat even faster, starting out with all the plausible deniability Rumsfeld spent a whole career building up and applying to his various political positions.

Indeed, if one cannot easily watch “The Unknown Known” in a vacuum separated from “The Fog of War,” neither can one not think of America’s possible, pending military strike against Syria. Rumsfeld’s defense for action points back to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on his people, a line of justification that should sound familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the news recently. Not yet fully extricated from Afghanistan, the United States may be on the verge of committing itself to another Arab nation suffering from volatile internal tensions that will almost certainly be exacerbated, not dissipated, by foreign intervention.

If a documentary about Rumsfeld seems to plunder such recent events that it feels of the present, the former secretary’s unwavering confidence in the justice of his cause and his ability to bury responsibility for disaster in a distorted cloud view of the chain of command is almost anticipatory. Rumsfeld ducks questions and stands by his decisions throughout, but his most savagely intended, if benignly delivered, line is surely his appeal to the righteousness of the policies he upheld by pointing to the continuation of said policies by Barack Obama. A sly jab at Morris’ likely liberal audience, Rumsfeld’s remark now seems prescient as the current president’s campaign for justifiable intervention mirrors that of his predecessor.

Perhaps the repetitious nature of the documentary instills fears of an impending repeat of its touched-upon events. On its face, “The Unknown Known” cannot help but overlap with “The Fog of War,” but Rumsfeld’s career and even speech patterns lend themselves to a cyclical movement. The film’s title stems from an infamous speech Rumsfeld gave in 2002, in which he laid out a conceptually simple but verbally convoluted delineation of knowns and unknowns formed by placing the two in various configurations. The talk of known knowns and unknown unknowns and such show how well Rumsfeld can use plain, unadorned English to twist and manipulate, and even Morris, who displays a combative tone in his questions, is powerless to stop the film from following the narrative Rumsfeld wants. That the film’s early, establishing bits of biography feel so rushed is a testament to how well Rumsfeld can influence the direction of even a critical film about him, and one even gets the impression of the man as a warm, not unpleasant person, just as a far more charismatic person in power campaigns for the next stage in America’s seemingly endless war.

Near the end of “The Unknown Known,” Rumsfeld recounts a story about visiting a horribly injured soldier at Walter Reed, where the surgeon told him the man was doomed but the soldier’s wife told him she knew her husband would pull through. With tears in his eyes and a dramatic reveal, Rumsfeld informs the viewer that the soldier indeed lived, a happy ending corrupted by how much of the entire war he projects into this one story. In his mind, the soldier living (though in what state of pain is never said) stands in for America’s capacity to endure and prevail through its wounds. For all those soldiers not too severely maimed, however, that belief may soon see them deployed to yet another hotspot, and to spend 90 minutes staring into the face of a man most of us would prefer never to see again is to know that he has never truly left, nor will his legacy dissipate in the foreseeable future. “The Fog of War” is the superior film, but “The Unknown Known” is more unsettling: Rumsfeld speaks of his memos as historical documents, but the sad truth hanging in the air around Morris’ Interrotron setup is that they have yet to become artifacts of the past.

SCORE: 7.2 / 10