A few nights ago I was fortunate enough to get to see a preview of Errol Morris’ film The Unknown Known (2013) at the lovely Olympic Studios cinema in Barnes. The film is a documentary in which Morris interviews Donald Rumsfeld about his career and political decisions. It focuses mainly on his second go round as Secretary of Defense under GW Bush (2001-2006), but his early career and first appointment by Ford (1975-1977) are also discussed.
The format is similar to The Fog of War (2003), Morris’ series of interviews with Robert McNamara, another Secretary of Defense (under JFK and LBJ, 1961-1968). However the similarities end there. Largely because of Rumsfeld’s concerning vacuity and total lack of reflection, the documentary itself is a bit frustrating (as it was, Morris admitted, to interview the man). Unlike the focused and insightful Fog of War, The Unknown Known feels diffuse and unfulfilling.
While the film is worth seeing as a look into the conscience (or lack thereof) of an extremely powerful man, the high point of the evening was definitely the Q&A that followed. Hosted by the nonpareil Francine Stock of BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, the conversation was provocative and candid. Morris was calm and measured but his frustration was palpable from the very start of the discussion.
Rumsfeld’s “cluelessness” was the refrain, his “shocking cluelessness” as Morris put it. The interviews revealed Rumsfeld’s “vanity, shallowness, self-absorption, and just cluelessness“. As examples, Morris cited the fact that Rumsfeld admitted, apparently honestly, that he had not read the Haynes memo about enhanced interrogation. He also cited one of Rumsfeld’s answers:
Morris: “What did you learn from the Vietnam War?”
Rumsfeld: “I learned that some things work and some things don’t. That didn’t.”
Rumsfeld, despite his vacuity, does not come across as evil. Nor does he seem to have any real agency, convictions, or motivations at all, apart from sheer self-advancement. Morris brought up the cliché of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”, a phrase he feels is overused, yet useful in this case, because Arendt suggested that evil lies in the absence of something where one expects presence. The look in Rumsfeld’s eyes, and his Cheshire “smile without a cat”, are charismatic but vacuous. He does not seem conniving; on the contrary, he is unrepentant, not because of the rectitude of his decisions, but simply because repentance requires reflection. He is sincere. “Insincerity would have been a relief!” exclaimed Morris; “That smile isn’t insincere, it reveals something about the man.” Obviously the total renouncement of agency and responsibility by such a powerful man should make the public uneasy, and it made Morris uneasy enough that he actually called his documentary a “horror movie”, with the implication being that the horror lies in the fact that someone so morally disengaged could get into such a position of power. Morris did not feel that Rumsfeld was acting or that he was any different off-camera from on-.
The problem is Rumsfeld’s lack of engagement, most frustrating in his odd pre-occupation with language. Francine Stock suggested this could be a honed defensive mechanism, but Morris seemed to think that this gave Rumsfeld too much credit, that he genuinely doesn’t have the faculty for objectivity. Instead, he skirts reality with word games. These games cannot really be called rhetorical or semantic. They are more just a predilection for language that sounds profound, irrespective of meaning. For example, he still seems to love the aphorism “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” in spite of the fact that no evidence for WMDs in Iraq was ever found. One might reasonably expect some basic regret, or even just a desire to distance oneself from the phrase. On the contrary, he seems just as enamoured of the phrase as he did in 2002, history notwithstanding. As Morris said, this type of language is not Orwellian, because Orwellian language is intended to manipulate and mislead, whereas Rumsfeld’s language tends more towards the aphoristic, tautological, or just plain meaningless. Because of this Rumsfeld is “the opposite of McNamara, who was deeply reflective” and “clearly saw himself as morally culpable”.
As a viewing experience, the documentary is interesting, but not as compelling as the McNamara interviews. Without the context of the Q&A I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much, but I think it’s still worthwhile as a historical document if not a must-see like some of Morris’ other work.