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Movie review

‘The Unknown Known’: Catch Donald Rumsfeld if you can

Donald Rumsfeld was the second longest-serving US secretary of defense after Robert McNamara, another manager of a disastrous war.

Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

Donald Rumsfeld was the second longest-serving US secretary of defense after Robert McNamara, another manager of a disastrous war.

The two longest-serving US secretaries of defense are Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld. McNamara spent 10 more days running the Pentagon than Rumsfeld did. He also served uninterruptedly. Rumsfeld held the post under presidents Ford and George W. Bush. Both men are associated with disastrous wars, making them likely the two most controversial secretaries of defense. Certainly they’re the only two to be subjects of Errol Morris documentaries.

“The Fog of War” (2003), about McNamara, won Morris a best documentary feature Oscar. “The Unknown Known” takes its title from a favorite phrase of Rumsfeld. It also accurately describes its subject, whose smiling inscrutability makes him consistently fascinating and often maddening.

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McNamara makes a cameo appearance in “The Unknown Known,” glimpsed in footage from a 1989 symposium featuring former secretaries of defense. But the new film is hardly déjà vu all over again. The men are as different as down and up, grief and glee. McNamara was a technocrat left morally devastated by the quagmire his number-crunching had helped create (for himself no less than his country). As for Rumsfeld, he declared at a July 2003 press conference, “I don’t do quagmires.” The only self-examination he ever subjects himself to would appear to involve a shaving mirror and lather.

The quagmires comment appears in “The Unknown Known” in a snippet of news footage. The documentary also includes photographs, headlines, archival audio and video, maps, and superimposed text — lots and lots of superimposed text, mostly dictionary definitions and Rumsfeld memos. It’s estimated that he wrote 20,000 during the nearly six years he served under Bush. “I don’t know where all those words came from,” Rumsfeld marvels of his output. Morris has him read from several memos. It’s like listening to Custer saddle up and go for a gallop, not that Rumsfeld would buy that comparison, of course.

The blizzard of memos became known in the Pentagon as “snowflakes.” The term was not complimentary. Morris offers multiple shots of snow globes as a visual metaphor for the memos. He also includes the occasional shot of waves at sea and open sky. Like Danny Elfman’s for-lack-of-Philip-Glass score and a penchant for slow-mo and sped-up footage, they’re Morris tics that become a bit of a distraction. But if such flourishes have become a predictable part of his documentaries, the way blood and standoffs are in Quentin Tarantino movies, so is the intelligence that informs every frame of “The Unknown Known.” There is no more robust and searching mind at work in American film.

The lion’s share of the documentary consists of Morris, whom we never see but sometimes hear, interviewing Rumsfeld, whose face fills the screen, Rushmore-like. He’s the only talking head, other than those glimpsed in archival clips.

Unlike McNamara, Rumsfeld is actorly: not just at ease in front of a camera but utterly at home there. His Pentagon press conferences were star turns; and like any great performer, Rumsfeld is self-aware without ever being self-conscious. McNamara clearly thought of himself as the opposite of naive, yet he was the essence of it. To his dying day, he puzzled over facts and figures being no match for hearts and minds. Rumsfeld, in contrast, presents himself as a cheerful naif, peppering his speech with “My goodness,” “Good grief,” and “Goodness gracious” — and, oh, that crinkly-eyed smile behind those rimless schoolmarm glasses — yet the last thing the man is is naive. A consummate political survivor and bureaucratic infighter, he’s a cobra in foxy-grandpa drag.

Morris asks most of the questions you’d expect: about Guantanamo and the Geneva Convention, weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib. (Oddly enough, he doesn’t ask about ignoring Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in favor of Iraq, with the disastrous consequences we still are dealing with.) “Would it have been better not to have gone there at all?” Morris asks of Iraq. “I guess time will tell,” Rumsfeld replies. Usually, his answers are a lot better, but all are on that order of self-exculpation. In his ability to dodge and have an answer for everything, Rumsfeld recalls not McNamara but a famous movie figure of the past. “I think, Errol,” he smilingly says at one point, “you’re probably chasing the wrong rabbit here.” The grin, the unflappability, the cockiness, the carroty charm. Morris is hardly Elmer Fudd, but you half-expect Rumsfeld to add, “Eh, what’s up, doc?”

Once, Morris catches him in what would seem to be a flat-out falsehood. No, no, Rumsfeld says, no one ever thought that Saddam was involved with 9/11. Morris quotes a 2003 Washington Post poll where two-thirds of respondents said he was. Well, Rumsfeld says, no one in the Bush administration thought that. Morris then cuts to a Feb. 4, 2003, Pentagon press conference, where Rumseld is asked about a Saddam denial of any involvement with Al Qaeda. “Yes, and Abraham Lincoln was short,” he says.

Rumsfeld notes at one point that he’s not a lawyer. But good grief, as the man himself might say, how he loves a lawyerly dwelling on meanings. His pre-invasion comment on WMD — “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” — is just one example. Having split a hair, he will slice it into smaller pieces and bronze them. Talmudic scholarship lost two potentially great practitioners when Rumsfeld ran for office and Morris picked up a camera. This shared love of close interpretation may account for the weird chemistry between them, which helps make “The Unknown Known” so compelling.

McNamara’s secretary has described how she’d sometimes encounter her boss during his final year at the Pentagon standing behind his office curtains weeping. No such scene is imaginable with Rumsfeld. That said, he does tear up once during the film. Rumsfeld says he would regularly go to military hospitals to spend time with recuperating service personnel. On one visit, he was told that the grievously wounded soldier he’d met wasn’t “going to make it.” But on a subsequent visit, Rumsfeld sees that the soldier is still alive and learns that, yes, he’s “going to make it” after all.

Leave it to Steven Spielberg, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier noted once of “Schindler’s List,” to film a Holocaust story with a happy ending. Leave it to Donald Rumsfeld to tell a tear-inducing story that ends in smiles. Which story, though: the soldier’s recovery or Rumsfeld’s career?

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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