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unknown_knownTHE UNKNOWN KNOWN

Directed by Erol Morris


Erol Morris’s mesmerizing documentary, THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, opens with former American Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, staring directly into the camera and reading us an excerpt of one of the more than 20,000 memos he wrote while he worked in the White House. In this memo, he refers to the known known, which would be things that one knows they know for a fact; he then goes on to address the known unknown, which would be elements one knows they don’t know enough about yet. He finishes this by addressing the unknown unknowns. These are the most frightening, especially when you consider who is speaking about them and how much he values them; these are things you don’t know that you don’t know anything about. According to Rumsefld, in order to know the unknown unknowns, you need to fill in the gaps with your own imagination, which is all the more disturbing when that concept is applied to military intelligence. Morris chooses to entitle his film, THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, which has a more esoteric application. These are things that we know but don’t know that we know.


It wasn’t all that long ago but in case you’ve forgotten, there was an immense amount of suspicion cast upon the American government when they decided to invade Iraq in 2003. They had spent months chasing after Osama Bin Laden and when that effort proved fruitless (at the time, anyway), their focus shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq.  Despite the polling to suggest otherwise, Rumsfeld does not feel that there was any confusion over why America invaded Iraq. One of the reasons this may be confusing to some, aside from the barrage of conflicting journalism on the subject at the time, is because Rumsfeld’s imagination played a large part in that decision. A lack of imagination is what he blames devastating attacks like Pearl Harbour and September 11th on. There was a lack of foresight on the government’s part to see these completely unexpected attacks, because they didn’t take the intelligence they already had on hand and imagine the extremes of where it could all lead. On the one hand, preventing these attacks would obviously have been appreciated by all. On the other hand though, imagination is not fact.


Once again, Morris proves that keeping it simple can often reveal some of the most complex thoughts imaginable. THE UNKNOWN KNOWN is basically an hour and forty minutes of Rumsfeld talking about his life but it is still riveting. Morris is thorough in his scope, going back to Rumsfeld’s days as a congressman in the 1960’s, which allows Rumsfeld to really take his time with the topics and word them exactly as he feels they should be worded. It almost looks at times like he isn’t intentionally trying to mislead anyone with his verbiage, but you get the sense as well that choosing his words carefully is essentially second nature to him after having done it for such a long time. Still, Morris never lets him off the hook. As an interviewer, Morris is direct, frank and intentionally trying to throw Rumsfeld off at times, but also respectful enough to allow Rumsfeld to share, what we are at least meant to believe are, some very private moments. And while they may not make clear what the real unknown known is, the known known is that THE UNKNOWN KNOWN is a fascinating film.

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