Apart from Dick Cheney, the only politician creepier and more unreadable is Donald Rumsfeld. And the only documentarian more unsuited to make a movie about him than Michael Moore is Errol Morris. Rumsfeld's strange willingness to walk onto the set of his own character assassination is just one of the many fascinating elements of The Unknown Known. Eerily building up to the date of September 11, Rumsfeld's memo in late July states he would hate to find the country in another Pearl Harbor situation. While Rumsfeld iterates that he was not "prescient" of the impending Twin Towers explosion, Morris subtly builds on the strangeness--and seeming randomness--of this man's politics.
Among some of Rumsfeld's more disturbing political philosophies are: "Belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes" and "If you wish for peace, prepare for war." His vacant simper appears often after he knows he's uttered something bordering on the absurd--meaning you'll see quite a bit of simpering throughout the documentary. Beginning from his political infancy working for Richard Nixon, Morris digs up tapes of H.R. Haldeman, Henry Kissinger and Nixon discussing Rumsfeld's dubious future within the administration. Whether or not Rumsfeld's coup of a maneuver in excusing himself from the country just in time to evade any implications in Watergate is, as usual, arbitrary.
In discussing the influential men he's been able to work with Rumsfeld mentions his time working as Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford, and later, under George W. Bush. With some reluctance and tongue in cheek diplomacy, Rumsfeld notes, "George W. Bush was his own man." After being ousted in the 1980s by the advent of the Reagan Administration, Rumsfeld served as the CEO of G.D. Searle & Company. It wasn't until he was plucked back up from obscurity by Dick Cheney (who Rumsfeld had done a solid for by getting him appointed to replace him as head of the Economic Stabilization Program while working for Ford) that Rumsfeld started making a splash again.
As a key instigator of the Iraq War that began in 2003, Rumsfeld became illustrious for his double talk in supporting arguments for U.S. military involvement. One such statement crops up numerous times in the documentary, hence where the title comes from. On defense decisions, Rumsfeld declares, "There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not."
As Morris and Rumsfeld grow more engaged in the discussion of how the Iraq War and subsequent prisoner/detainee treatment escalated, Rumsfeld becomes unwittingly honest about his views on governing. Just as George W. Bush once made the horrifying statement about how much easier it would be to act as a dictator, so, too does Rumsfeld state the similarly alarming desire: "It would be so much easier if you could treat people--all of them--as prisoners of war." It is around this point that he also denies maltreatment of anyone at Guantanamo Bay (this is when Morris cuts to documents containing reports on the playing of Christina Aguilera music as part of torture tactics). And all of this is made a little more sinister by the constant presence of Danny Elfman music.
In spite of the film being essentially one long interview with Rumsfeld--which means the somewhat uncomfortable task of staring into his eyes for an hour and fortyish minutes--it is fascinating to watch a man so clearly guilty of wrongdoing genuinely believe that everything he did was right. Even during that period when mostly he was just looking up words in the dictionary. In fact, he even recorded himself saying, "I wanna make a list of things I've done for the Pentagon, including getting rid of words." How can you reason with a man who views such a thing as a crowning accomplishment? Morris must have had a similar epiphany as he concludes his interview with the question, "Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?" Rumsfeld responds, "That is a vicious question...I'll be darned if I know."