Film review: The Unknown Known (2013)

I recently watched this documentary that features Donald Rumsfeld, who served as secretary of defense in the administration of George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006, and thus oversaw the origins of two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that created massive destruction in those countries and killed and injured and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The film was produced and directed by documentarian Errol Morris who did a similar documentary called The Fog of War (2003) about Robert McNamara who was secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and oversaw the massive escalation of the Vietnam war.

In both these documentaries, these war criminals try to explain and justify their atrocities. In both we see them talking directly to the camera, responding to the interviewer’s questions, interspersed with archival footage.

The Unknown Known is not a very good film. It has too much of what seemed to me to be filler material and attempts at artistic presentation and not enough hard-hitting critiques of the subject. While there are a couple of occasions where Rumsfeld flat out lies and then the contradictory facts are immediately shown, there is not enough of these moments, given the number of lies he told, and no attempt to get him to confront his lies. This allows him to try to rewrite history casting himself in a more favorable light.

In the film Rumsfeld comes across as an overweeningly arrogant person, smugly confident that he is really smart although his main skills seem to be bureaucratic maneuvering along with a certain facility with words and some rhetorical skills. In some sense that is the problem with the top echelons of government. Many of these people have attended elite preparatory schools and elite colleges and this makes them think that their judgments are infallible. They see themselves as ‘the best and the brightest’, in David Halberstam’s memorable description of those who created the Vietnam disaster, and that experience was repeated with Afghanistan and Iraq. Then when things go terribly wrong, as they did with all those wars, they claim that the decisions they made were the best possible (because they were so smart) and that ‘everyone’ agreed with what they did and so they could not be at fault, when that is simply not true.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. says

    Nor to be confused with known rapey shithead michael shermer’s work by similar title.

    I had no idea this documentary existed and look forward to watching it. I never expected Rumsfeldt would consent to interviews, he’s such a dick.

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