A decade ago, in "The Fog of War," filmmaker Errol Morris sat former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in front of his famed Interrotron camera and asked about the decisions during the Vietnam War that led to the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and countless Vietnamese people.
Now, in "The Unknown Known," Morris puts another former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, in the Interrotron to ask about the decisions that prompted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — which led to the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and countless Afghani and Iraqi people.
‘The Unknown Known’
Filmmaker Errol Morris puts a smiling Donald Rumsfeld in the hot seat, but the former defense secretary refuses to give an inch about the failure of the Iraq War.
Where » Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When » Opens Friday, April 11.
Rating » PG-13 for some disturbing images and brief nudity
Running time » 103 minutes.
There’s one major difference between the two films, and it comes down to the different attitudes of McNamara and Rumsfeld. McNamara was introspective and thoughtful about the damage done by America’s actions in Vietnam. There is no such introspection in Rumsfeld — only the same snarky double-talk that he displayed during his tenure in the George W. Bush administration.
Morris has Rumsfeld narrate his own story, using some of the 20,000 memos he wrote during his six years in office (2001-06) — memos so frequent that Pentagon staffers referred to them as "snowflakes."
An early example: a memo to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, in which he suggests the possibility of using nuclear weapons against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. This memo is dated July 27, 2001 — more than a month before 9/11, and when Bush administration officials later would say they had no intentions at all against Iraq.
But when Morris asks Rumsfeld about the Bush administration’s "obsession" with Iraq, Rumsfeld rebuts him. It wasn’t an obsession, Rumsfeld insists now, but "a very nuanced approach."
And so it goes for an hour and a half, as Rumsfeld attacks the premise of every question Morris asks — and, in the process, avoids answering most of them.
Occasionally, Morris employs the "Daily Show" trick of using Rumsfeld’s words against him. One example is when Rumsfeld today denies that he or any Bush administration officials sowed the public confusion about Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent role in the 9/11 attacks — and Morris counters with a clip of Rumsfeld, circa 2003, suggesting that Saddam was involved in 9/11.
Morris gets Rumsfeld to talk about his early history: in the Nixon administration, when he avoided being tarred by Watergate; his return as Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, when he befriended defense secretary Richard Cheney and sparred with the then-director of the CIA, George H.W. Bush; and his time as special Middle East envoy to President Reagan — when Rumsfeld infamously had his photo taken shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.
But then it’s back to Rumsfeld’s work in the Bush White House — and a smiling wall of denial that he did anything wrong as Osama Bin Laden got away in Afghanistan, the Iraq invasion devolved into a quagmire and the U.S. government’s approval of torture soiled America’s reputation at home and abroad.
Ultimately, Morris and Rumsfeld play "The Unknown Known" to a draw, with neither getting the other to budge an inch from the mindset he had when the movie started. The fear is that moviegoers will feel the same way after seeing it.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.