Dive Into the Great 'Unknown'

Errol Morris and Don Rumsfeld take us on a tour of U.S. history

Dive Into the Great 'Unknown'

During a speech in February 2012, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a famous statement on weapons of mass destruction:

"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.

The astute listener will notice that there's a combination of those words that he left out: unknown knowns, which, in the opening sequence of Errol Morris' documentary on the man and his legacy of memos, he defines as "things you think you know that it turns out you did not."

(Understatement of the decade?)

But old Rummy didn't start his political career there. Indeed, The Unknown Known traipses through nearly a half-century of American history with Rumsfeld before arriving at the bits freshest in the audience's memory – Ford, Nixon, both Bushes, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, Pearl Harbor, Dora Farms, you name it. The detailed tour down memory lane is brought to you by Rumsfeld's obsessive ("you love that word, obsessive," he'd say if he read this) habit of recording his thoughts and ideas and doubts on a dictaphone and sending memos – ultimately, tens of thousands – to his staff on a regular basis. Seriously, the man dictaphone'd everything.

The documentary itself cribs heavily from these memos, nicknamed snowflakes for their white paper flurries; the audience follows along as modern Rumsfeld rereads his own words on a kinetic typography-sort of script. Then he responds to questions posed by Morris like so much of a Mr. Rogers sort of fellow with his blue and grey tie, his grandfatherly grin, and euphemistic metaphors: "Everything seems amazing in retrospect," he chirps. The interviews and re-created memos are supplemented in beautiful (and standard History Channel) fashion by overlaid dictionary definitions, artsy shots of oceans and reels of tape, headlines from the news of the day, and archival photos and footage where available. It's hard to deny that, in that sense, it's a lovely work.

Whether the message itself is lovely is largely dependent on the politics of the viewer. A liberal-leaning twentysomething is bound to get something very different out of the thing than someone to whom a greater proportion of those years exists in memory rather than textbooks, and he even calls out Morris at one point for phrasing a question in terms of "them" rather than "us." To those of a certain mind, his tautological statements will come off more as fundamental truths; to others, they'll gloss as hokey dodges and carefully couched responses by a storytelling old-timer.

I'll just say this: When this film was added to the lineup in a late announcement a few weeks back, many were confused by its place in the Fantastic Fest slate. But Fantastic Fest has long been known for its reputation as a celebration of genre works – horror, science fiction, fantasy. And after a good, hard look at the last 60 years of American political theatre, it'd not be a very large leap to suggest that recent U.S. history is unfortunately all three.

The Unknown Known screens Monday, Sept. 23, 2:20pm.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Fantastic Fest
They're Here! Fantastic Fest Wave One Arrives
First Fantastic Fest 2018 Titles
Overlord, Apostle headline fest opening salvo

Richard Whittaker, July 31, 2018

Exploring <i>The Endless</i> With Benson and Moorhead
Exploring The Endless With Benson and Moorhead
Filmmakers talk science, magic, and bickering brothers

Richard Whittaker, April 20, 2018

More by Monica Riese
A Paramount Slate
A Paramount Slate
Paramount and Stateside programming heats up

April 3, 2014

Board Games and More
Board Games and More
Announcements from the Austin Film Society

April 2, 2014


Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2013, Errol Morris, The Unknown Known, politics, U.S. history, Donald Rumsfeld, History Channel

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle