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‘The Unknown Known’: Smiles and denials from Donald Rumsfeld

Donald Rumself is questioned about Iraq “The Unknown Known.”  |  RADIUS-TWC

Donald Rumself is questioned about Iraq in “The Unknown Known.” | RADIUS-TWC

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‘THE UNKNOWN KNOWN’ ★★★

Radius-TWC presents a documentary directed by Errol Morris. Running time: 102 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for some disturbing images and brief nudity). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

Updated: May 19, 2014 11:19AM



Errol Morris interviews his second U.S. Secretary of Defense about the logic of an undeclared war. In “The Fog of War” (2003), the filmmaker got regrets from Robert McNamara. From Donald Rumsfeld, he gets grins in “The Unknown Known.”

Morris titles this scary inquiry after a permutation of things “known” and “unknown” that Rumsfeld outlined in a 2001 memo, a 2002 press conference and a 2004 memo.

Evanston native and New Trier grad Rumsfeld went to Congress in 1962 and later served under Republican presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush. Focusing on Rumsfeld’s 2001-06 stint at the Pentagon, Morris scrutinizes his rhetoric and rationale for attacking Iraq and Afghanistan. Tactics and costs take a back seat to semantics.

Morris illustrates talking-head footage with TV news video. Interpretive visuals include a toy snowball evoking “snowflakes,” as Rumsfeld named his “blizzard” of memos. Text undulates in ocean waves and spirals into a black abyss. Morris superimposes dictionary entries for key words Rumsfeld uses on camera or deconstructs in his emails with “Definition” and “Terminology” as subject headings: “illegal,” “prescient,” “scapegoat,” “terrorism” and the elusive “victory.”

“I would have loved to have talked to Tariq Aziz and figure out what in the world were they thinking,” Rumsfeld tells Morris. “He [Iraq’s deputy prime minister] is a perfectly rational logical individual. You wonder, what goes on in a mind like that?” After 33 hours of interviews, Morris wonders what Rumsfeld has in mind. “One last question,” he asks off-camera. “Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?” Rumsfeld flashes one of his disconcerting grins: “That is a vicious question, I’ll be darned if I know.”

What does Morris think? Offscreen, he answered at film festivals last year. “History is insane,” he theorized at Telluride. “And why is it insane? Because it is the history of people who are insane.” And at Toronto: “I think history is crazy. I think we are crazy.”



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