The Unknown Known

Year: 2013
Studio: History Channel
Director: Errol Morris
Writer: Errol Morris
Cast: Donald Rumsfeld

While I don't think any film would ever convince me to change politics, this movie contained at least two surprises. First, there are two sides to every story – along with the rest of the world, I've seen the stock footage of Rumsfeld greeting Saddam Hussein and shaking his hand with a big smile, assuming it was evidence enough of America's duplicity in supporting and then turning on an ally when it suited their geopolitical purposes.

In fact it was taken when Rumsfeld was on a fact finding mission way back before the Gulf War. America aligned itself with despots and murderers when it suited its purposes back then no less than usual, but the ostensible purpose of the meeting was to figure out where Iraq stood in America's worldview. Rumsfeld talks about how he sought the advice of Iraq Prime Minister Tariq Aziz (who he knew) about how to approach the madman president.

The second surprise is that – owing to his presence in the Bush political machine – you're expecting this film by Errol Morris to simply give Rumsfeld enough rope to hang himself with. But unlike everything we saw about Bush at the time, Rumsfeld is no idiot. He holds his own while talking to Morris, doesn't take an adversarial stance and even when asked in the last scene why he agreed to talk to the documentarian, shrugs and says with apparent honesty that he's not really sure.

He appears to be an intelligent politician who decided to take part in a movie about himself because it might be fun or because he has the same sense of vanity we all do, and does so without a guarded agenda or without waiting to be attacked or tricked into saying something damming. Like another Morris subject and an earlier US defence secretary Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, Rumsfeld has been there for the nuances while the rest of us only remember the simplistic headlines.

The title of the film is taken from the infamous speech that makes it easy to accuse him of being a Bush or even a Trump-level idiot. A lot of reviews and comment about it talk about how Rumsfeld is a master of self-deception, about how he's lied to himself about Iraq, the Gulf War, weapons of mass destruction and all the other hallmarks of the war on terror era so completely and brilliantly he believes it all.

But although it makes me seem like an apologist, I'm not so sure. He just seems too smart for that. Instead he seems like a guy who knew his job was to wage war against whatever Middle Eastern power stood in the way of America's economic and political supremacy, he did it, he slept like a baby because he did it well, and sideswipes like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo left him with no choice but to appear like he was falling on his sword because, well, that's politics. As the poster asks; 'why is this man smiling?' The answer might simply be because although history has damned him, his mandate and the power structure he served never did.

The movie intersperses straight-to-camera interview footage of Rumsfeld, with Morris asking questions in the background and occasionally sounding incredulous in doing so, along with a lot of historical detail about Rumsfeld's rise to power going back to the Gerald Ford era and the way he executed his office while he climbed through the ranks.

The amount of memos he wrote and dispatched was legendary, and many scenes have him reading them as they appear on screen, quite candid about much of what went on (in one, he's essentially telling Condi Rice that if she doesn't pull her nose out of defence he'll go over her head), which help contribute to the feeling that he didn't sit down with Morris ready to fight.

Morris (and you, depending on your politics) might have wanted an indictment, but Rumsfeld is either too clever or just doesn't have enough to hide (and doesn't care) enough to give him one.

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