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The Unknown Known

Studio: Radius-TWC
Directed by Errol Morris

Apr 01, 2014 Issue #49 - February/March 2014 - Portlandia
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The title of Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known is taken from a Donald Rumsfeld quote on intelligence. To paraphrase: there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. The latter, he explains, are “failures of imagination” which allowed 9/11 to occur under his watch. A proactive approach followed, resulting in two costly wars, a slew of horror stories, and far too many unknown knowns: things we thought we knew, but didn’t.

Few darker figures emerged from the Bush administration, but Morris doesn’t bash his subject. Rumsfeld comes off as a contemplative, calculating politician with striking intelligence, shielded by hubris and a smile which never really fits. His obsession with language and semantics—evidenced by salty interactions with the press—affords him impressive latitude. But he’s not impenetrable. He seems scarred by the 1983 Beirut Barracks Bombing, which gave him rather Machiavellian views on decision-making which continued through Guantanamo. He acknowledges regrettable decisions without actually admitting regret. If he’s not seeking empathy or vindication, Morris asks, “Why are you doing this film?” Rumsfeld can only smile: “I don’t know.”

Author rating: 7.5/10

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