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Alex Beam

The known known

Errol Morris’s new film, “The Known Unknown,” flogs Donald Rumsfeld, an easy target.

Errol Morris watches Donald Rumsfeld, subject of “The Known Unknown,” on screen.Nubar Alexanian/Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

‘I think you’re probably, Errol, chasing the wrong rabbit here . . . ”

That’s Donald Rumsfeld’s parting shot, uttered in Errol Morris’s new direct-to-art-house-oblivion movie, “The Known Unknown.” Morris flogs Rummy, a low-hanging pinata if ever there was one, relentlessly with his wet noodle of condescension and scorn for 103 minutes, but kudos to Rumsfeld for getting the last laugh. Morris is the wabbit chaser extraordinaire.

I’m sick of Morris’s highbrow sermonizing — he’s the D.W. Griffith of the ABD (All But Dissertation) set — but I suppose some adulatory throat-clearing is in order. Morris has at least two good movies to his credit: “The Thin Blue Line,” a 1988 investigative piece which freed an innocent man from jail, and “Tabloid,” a 2010 documentary about Great Britain’s famous “Mormon sex in chains” case.


Lately Morris has staked a claim to unlimited acreage on The New York Times website, where he wool-gathers at excruciating length on subjects of his choosing. Lucky Times readers reveled in a four-part series Morris wrote to accompany his “Known Unknown” Rummy takedown.

OK, Rumsfeld. What is Morris doing here? He purports to be analyzing Rumsfeld’s “epistemology from hell,” embodied in the defense secretary’s famous comments about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, prior to our invasion. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” was a Rumsfeldian circumlocution which suggested that Iraq might well have WMDs, even though we couldn’t find them.

He lied. The president lied, and the secretary of state lied. But it’s laughable to dignify those lies by calling them an “epistemology.” It’s a pretty safe bet that George W. Bush and most of his Cabinet would have to look up “epistemology” (the theory of knowledge), and I don’t recall Rumsfeld pushing any philosophical bushwa on the American people while in office.

Morris has a yen for former secretaries of defense; case in point is his 2003 movie, “The Fog of War,” starring a reasonably articulate, 85-year-old Robert McNamara. I don’t know what one learns from it. I learned that McNamara may have been responsible for America’s horrendously effective fire-bombing of Japanese cities in 1945.


McNamara coolly remarks that he might have been hanged as a war criminal had we lost World War II, but we didn’t and he wasn’t. He certainly doesn’t apologize for the slaughter, nor should he. He spends a lot of the movie coolly suggesting that he opposed President Lyndon Johnson’s massive build-up of the Vietnam War, with very little supporting evidence.

So what’s the profound message here? War is hell? Morris fancies himself a student of complexity, and loves to pull at the loose threads of gargantuan balls of yarn. Case in point: the Kennedy assassination.

“November 22, 1963,” a short video produced for The New York Times last year, features a grizzly private eye named Josiah Thompson (Navy frogman; PhD on Kierkegaard . . . of course) who asserts that “the film evidence [of the Kennedy shooting] makes it possible to lay out a reasonably precise scenario as to what happened.” OK, then, what happened?

Um, that’s not so simple to explain. There is “one threshold question,” Thompson tells us. “Was somebody shooting from up there . . . in the [grassy] knoll area? . . . If shots came from more than one direction, then there is no doubt in my mind that there was a conspiracy. It’s been that simple, back in the ’60s, and it’s still there.”


But wait. Haven’t we seen this “grassy knoll equals possible conspiracy but alas no evidence for this” movie before? Come on, Errol. Find yourself some new rabbits to chase.

Alex Beam’c column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at