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"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There
are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know
we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns - there are things
we do not know we don't know." This was the enigmatic quote from
American politician Donald Rumsfeld that inspired the title of this
interview by acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris. Rumsfeld had an
astonishing career working for no fewer than four US presidents and
serving twice as Secretary of State for Defense - once as the youngest
holder of the position (1975- 1977) and then later as the oldest holder
of the post (2001-2006). In his second term as Defense Secretary, he
was a principal architect of the so-called 'war on terror', sending
troops into Afghanistan and then Iraq.
The fascinating testimony presented by Morris is both written and oral.
Rumsfeld was famous for his blizzard of memos - known as "snowflakes" -
and Morris managed to gain access to all the unclassified ones and to
persuade Rumsfeld to read out the most relevant to the documentary.
Additionally Morris posed a series of searching questions in an
interview shot over 11 days and recorded using the film maker's
trademark "Interrotron" device which means that Rumsfeld is seen
staring straight into the camera. It has to be said that Rumsfeld is a
fluent writer and an articulate speaker and, after eight decades, is as
sharp as ever, so there is no revelatory moment like David Frost's
interview with Richard Nixon, but it is precisely his evasiveness and
the charming manner in which he accomplishes this that is so revealing
of a bizarre and (when given power) frightening character.
I saw "The Known Unknown" at its UK premiere in central London's Curzon
Soho cinema in the presence of Errol Morris who made some opening
remarks and then, after the screening, took a question & answer
session. He compared this documentary with "The Fog Of War", his 2003
interview with another US Defense Secretary when he questioned Robert
McNamara on the Vietnam war, and called the two films "bookends". He
noted that McNamara was "deeply reflective", but characterised
Rumsfeld's performance as "deeply unreflective". He called Rumsfeld "a
skillful obscurantist" who was "obsessive with language" and had "a
complete lack of irony", highlighting his "infernal grin".
The banality of much of Rumsfeld's language - "The absence of evidence
is not the evidence of absence" - reminded me of Peter Sellers'
penultimate film "Being There" (1979) in which he played a simple
gardener whose bland aphorisms about nature led to him being co-opted
by America's political power brokers. Morris has done us a service in
capturing all this for history in the hope that we can learn from
history. What is totally unclear is why Rumsfeld agreed to the
interview. This was Morris's last question to him and he responded:
"I'll be darned if I know".
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, Errol Morris
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