As its subtitle suggests, one reason Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara proved so resonant is that its subject was partly a proxy for his most notorious professional successor, the decidedly less available Donald Rumsfeld. “I don’t do quagmires,” Rumsfeld said in a news briefing around that time, and there was the desperate sense that if life lessons could be learned from a chief architect of the Vietnam War, they sure as hell ought to be learned by a chief architect of the Iraq War.
Having been liberated from that job in 2006, Rumsfeld is marginally more available now, and Morris is ready for him. The Unknown Known, like The Fog of War, is an unmistakably Morrisish enterprise: built around a single-source interview, with the source looking straight into the camera and letting us try to get a read on him. In fact, were this merely a plain old movie, you might say it has a touch of sequelitis, and not just with respect to The Fog of War — some of the new film’s ground also was covered in Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’s 2008 documentary about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. But The Unknown Known is more than a plain old movie. It’s a deferred inquisition.
Credit is due to any attempt at teasing a film out of Rumsfeld’s most notorious sound bite. It’s too bad The Unknown Known manages mostly just to extend the sport he made of seeming callous, albeit absorbingly, at press conferences. Here again Rumsfeld takes questions as if only for the challenge of riposting them with non-answers, either because he’s unable or unwilling to assess the real consequences of his policy decisions in a meaningful way. Here again he tends to disappear behind his Cheshire Cat smile, which may finally imply that his ideal inquisitor isn’t Morris but rather the French film essayist Chris Marker, now deceased, who famously appraised the lucidity of political history in 1977’s A Grin without a Cat.
But let’s stick to what we know we know. Before Rumsfeld served as secretary of defense under George W. Bush, he did so under Gerald Ford, at which time Rumsfeld’s then-assistant Dick Cheney took over for him as Ford’s chief of staff. He has been both the youngest and the oldest person to have the job — and he both had his resignation refused and was fired. The career alone seems Kafkaesque. And the man? He calls himself cool and measured, as opposed to obsessive, and he is certainly cool enough to convey an emotional detachment from human suffering. But surely some kind of compulsion must have inspired the tens of thousands of work memos he was known to write with great frequency and finicky detail. Several of the memos, nicknamed “snowflakes,” appear in Morris’s film, with Rumsfeld reading them aloud.
“Within a few years the U.S. will undoubtedly have to confront a Saddam armed with nuclear weapons,” he wrote in July 2001. Well, we did manage to avoid that. Reading his own words again, Rumsfeld’s tone is not repentant, but it is consistent with his habit of parsing semantics — “the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence,” and so on — while human lives and possibly human civilization were at stake. Apparently he spent a lot of time poring over the Pentagon dictionary, which of course is different from the regular dictionary. Maybe it was just Rumsfeld’s way of dithering, or sublimating his own uncertainties. And maybe there’s an ironic comment from Morris in the pause that ensues after Rumsfeld says of Hussein, “He was living his image of himself. Which was pretend.” But to say “maybe” too much is to traffic in unknowns.
Morris tries to engage Rumsfeld with conversation about Shakespeare’s view of history, as a grand and bloody escalation of character flaws and petty jealousies, but Rumsfeld — well, Rumsfeld doesn’t seem like a literary guy. Revealing neither ambition nor a sense of duty, he calmly agrees that had Reagan chosen him as running mate he might eventually have become president himself. Morris’s use of time-lapsed traffic pulsing through Washington, D.C., that familiar House of Cards signifier of Machiavellian executive-branch scheming, doesn’t add much.
Otherwise, every time Morris seems to be handing over a length of rope for Rummy to hang himself with, the smug bastard just ties it into a fancy Boy Scout knot. Of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, he says, “I felt a very strong sense that something terrible had happened — on my watch.” But quite unlike McNamara reflecting on Vietnam in The Fog of War, he doesn’t seem even a little bit broken up about it. Rumsfeld’s sense of statesmanship seems to consist of remaining one of those people who’s more likely to say “I’m sorry you feel that way” than “I’m sorry,” even and especially while under public scrutiny.
Rumsfeld’s impenetrability makes him fascinating, but only to a point. The good idea behind Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott’s 2011 novella Donald, in which Rumsfeld gets kidnapped and stashed away in a purposely Rumsfeldian prison system, without due process, was that it was written from his point of view. But that just reaffirmed the hermetic self-enclosure of Rumsfeld’s point of view: Even torture didn’t break his defiant indifference so much as turn it inside out, leaving the victim to ask himself, “How do you know what you know?” Like Morris’s nonfiction film, Martin and Elliott’s book took the high road of restraint, which eventually dead-ended in a sense of futility. Morris’s interrogation is much lighter, but it invites a similar conclusion: that Rumsfeld considers himself perpetually at war, with his own defenses permanently up.