The Fog of War (2003) ranks as one of the greatest political documentaries of all time. Errol Morris earned an Academy Award for his portrait of Robert McNamara, the regret-ridden former Secretary of Defense regarded as the architect of the Vietnam War. The filmmaker’s latest offers a sequel of sorts with its examination of another military mastermind’s imprint on history, though his attempt to penetrate the delusions and defenses of Donald Rumsfeld are hindered less by fog than a succession of smoke screens.
Reviewers have suggested that The Unknown Known isn’t as fine a film because Morris fails to crack his subject, to make him concede to having second thoughts-in some cases any thoughts-about the role he played in both causing and botching the Iraq War. This misses the point. The wholesale absence of honest appraisal, self awareness or contrition here isn’t a reflection of the picture’s shortcomings. It’s a reflection of Rumsfeld’s.
The youngest Secretary of Defense in US history, appointed by Gerald Ford (there’s a Chevy Chase joke in there somewhere) and later under Bush the oldest, Rumsfeld’s been around the beltway block, and Morris fills in any gaps which may exist in the popular memory as to how he scaled his way to the pinnacle of power.
Stints in the Navy and Congress led to roles in the Nixon White House and then Ford’s. His idea of a ripping yarn is a practically knee-slapping account of the 1975 Sarah Jane Moore assassination attempt, after which he and a secret service agent pushed the president into his limo and threw themselves over him. The punchline? “Suddenly I hear a muffled voice: ‘Hey, you guys are heavy.’”
Suitably though, the movie begins and finishes with Iraq. Rumsfeld proves as frustrating an interview for the audience as for the director, who raises issue after perfectly reasonable issue and is detectably dumbfounded by the deflections, word games and bald-faced denials of reality his questions elicit. The 81-year-old’s eyes twinkle. He grins that Cheshire Cat grin. And he lies like a rug. You want to reach through the screen and grab him by the throat. Sorry, it’s true.
A typical sequence: Morris suggests the White House clearly wanted the public to believe Saddam Hussein was connected with Al Qaeda and 9/11. Rumsfeld adopts a look of puzzlement. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he replies, “I don’t remember anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that.” Next: a clip of a typical Rumsfeld press conference-equal parts briefing and stand up performance-from February 2003. A reporter quotes Hussein’s assurance to the US that “Iraq has no WMD…and no relationship with Al Qaeda.” “And Abraham Lincoln was short,” the Secretary of Defense chuckles, adding, “He rarely tells the truth.”
Time after time, Morris backs him into factual corners and, if the legendary director’s latest falls at all short, it’s in his reticence to go for the gotcha moment. Who knows why he holds back? Maybe he felt Rumsfeld’s prevarications and empty rhetoric speak for themselves, for example when confronted with the fact that Saddam hadn’t lied and didn’t have WMDs after all. “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence,” Rumsfeld quips, grinning that maddening grin.
The Unknown Known is both artful cinema and invaluable historical document. When future generations wonder how we could’ve made such a mess of things in the Middle East at the dawn of the 21st century, they’ll have only to look upon that infuriatingly self-satisfied face and listen to his twisting of the truth. It’s not a pretty picture, just an immeasurably important one.