The Unknown Known

For the speech which inspired the title, see There are known knowns.
The Unknown Known

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Errol Morris
Starring Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris, Kenn Medeiros
Music by Danny Elfman
Release dates
Running time
105 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $301,604[1]

The Unknown Known (also known as The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld) is a 2013 American documentary film about the political career of former U.S. Secretary of Defense and congressman Donald Rumsfeld, directed by Academy Award winning documentarian and filmmaker Errol Morris. The film is a summary of 33 hours of interviews that Morris conducted with Rumsfeld over eleven separate sessions during visits to Boston, Massachusetts. It is dedicated to the memory of Roger Ebert.


The major portion of the film is spent addressing excerpts from the countless memos, nicknamed 'Yellow Perils' by his first Pentagon staff and 'Snowflakes' by the second, that Rumsfeld wrote during his time as a congressman and advisor to four different presidents, twice as United States Secretary of Defense.[2][3] It also focuses on a response Rumsfeld gave to a question at a U.S. Department of Defense news briefing on February 12, 2002 about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. The content of the memos are varied, covering everything from the aftermath of Watergate, to the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, to the definition of the word “terrorism”. Morris returns to the motif of snowflakes swirling within a globe throughout the documentary as he discusses the context of the memos with Rumsfeld, notes to which the Defense Secretary gave him limited access while preparing the film, and which Rumsfeld agrees to read aloud on camera.[3][4]

At the beginning of the documentary, Rumsfeld argues that a major purpose of the Department of Defense is to evaluate "unknown knowns," or "the things you think you know, that it turns out you did not," to anticipate hostile actions before they take place. Illustrating his point, Rumsfeld suggests that the failure of the United States to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor was a failure of imagination.[2]

Rumsfeld during a Pentagon news briefing.

As the interviews proceed, the director is able to catch his subject lying on camera, though when he does, Rumsfeld does not acknowledge it, with Morris finding the politician unwilling or unable to engage in self-reflection.[3][5][6] When the director asks him about the lessons he learnt from the Vietnam War, for example, Rumsfeld replies tersely: “Some things work out, some things don’t; that didn’t.” Rumsfeld also expresses good-natured surprise at the list of torture techniques — including hooding, stress positions, and nudity — that he personally approved for use on Guantánamo detainees, stating, "Good grief! That’s a pile of stuff!”[3] In follow up, Morris questions him about the so-called "Torture Memos" describing enhanced interrogation techniques. When Rumsfeld replies that he never read them, Morris responds in disbelief, "Really?"[7] When asked if the Iraq War was a mistake, Rumsfeld replies, "I guess time will tell."[6]

In the penultimate scene, Morris questions him again about "unknown knowns," and the definition given by Rumsfeld has inverted, a discongruence the director is quick to point out, and which Rumsfeld acknowledges: "unknown knowns" are "things that you know, that you don't know you know."[2][4] As the documentary closes, Morris asks Rumsfeld why he agreed to the interviews. Rumsfeld responds, "That is a vicious question. I'll be darned if I know."[2]

Release and critical response

It was screened in the main competition section at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, and premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on August 29, 2013.[8][9][10][11][2]

The documentary has an 84% "Certified Fresh" rating on the critical review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, with the summary, "Viewers hoping to see Donald Rumsfeld admit making mistakes in public office may find The Unknown Known frustrating – but no less fascinating."[12] David Denby of the New Yorker wrote, "If Morris doesn’t quite nail Rumsfeld, his questions lead the Secretary to nail himself. You watch him obfuscate, fudge the issue of torture, smirk about George H. W. Bush (whom he doesn’t like), and offer dull commonplaces when impassioned clarity is called for."[13] Mary Corliss of Time Magazine wrote, "Morris's movie is a cat-and-mouse game, and Rumsfeld is the cat, virtually licking his chops as he toys with, and then devours, another rival."[14] Colin Colvert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote, "Morris is admirably evenhanded, never demonizing his subject, but giving him enough rope to hang himself. Rumsfeld, cool and bemused, refuses to knot the noose."[15]

Comparisons to The Fog of War

Reviews have compared the film to Morris's Academy Award-winning predecessor, The Fog of War, a similar interview of Robert McNamara, the longest serving U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Several reviews of the documentary compare it to Morris's Academy Award-winning predecessor, The Fog of War, with the follow-up being described as a "spiritual sequel".[16][17][18] The earlier documentary is about Robert McNamara, the longest serving U.S. Secretary of Defense, with Rumsfeld being the second. Both are film interviews of former Defense Secretary octogenarians who were dismissed prematurely from their posts, and who discuss their roles as the voice of some of the most unpopular wars in recent American history – for McNamara, Vietnam and for Rumsfeld, Iraq.[2][7]

At one point, Morris asks Rumsfeld, “Have you seen The Fog of War? What do you think about that?” to which Rumsfeld responds, "I hate it. That man had nothing to apologize for."[19] Morris himself has been resistant to comparisons, stating "You can’t call this ‘The Fog of War 2.’ I can’t imagine two individuals more unalike."[20]


See also


  1. "The Unknown Known". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 28, 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Morris, Errol (Director) (Dec 13, 2013). The Unknown Known (Motion picture). Los Angeles, CA: The Weinstein Company.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Higginbotham, Adam (June 11, 2014). "The Unknown Known: Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld". The Telegraph. Retrieved Sep 3, 2015.
  4. 1 2 Baker, Jeff (April 9, 2014). "'The Unknown Known' review: Donald Rumsfeld, slippery as a snake and just as deadly". The Oregonion. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  5. Kaplan, Fred (Mar 28, 2014). "Seeking Truth in a Blizzard of 'Snowflakes'". The New York Times. Retrieved Sep 3, 2015.
  6. 1 2 Hornaday, Ann (April 3, 2014). "'The Unknown Known' review: Documentary lets Donald Rumsfeld have his say". The Washington Post. Retrieved Sep 3, 2015.
  7. 1 2 Turan, Kenneth (April 2, 2014). "Review: 'The Unknown Known' finds Donald Rumsfeld free of self-doubt". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 4, 2015.
  8. Guerrasio, Jason (Mar 20, 2015). "Oscar-winning director Errol Morris reveals what his Netflix series will be about". Business Insider. Retrieved Sep 3, 2015.
  9. "Venezia 70". Venice Biennale. Retrieved 2013-07-27.
  10. Benzine, Adam (25 July 2013). "Wiseman, Morris, Gibney set for Venice". Realscreen. Retrieved 31 July 2013.
  11. "Venice film festival 2013: the full line-up". The Guardian. London. 25 July 2013. Retrieved July 27, 2013.
  12. "The Unknown Known". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 24, 2014.
  13. David Denby. "Field Maneuvers". The New Yorker.
  14. Mary Corliss. "Postcards from Venice Previews of Toronto". Time Magazine.
  15. Colvert, Colin. "Donald Rumsfeld, artful dodger, in 'Unknown Known'". Minneapolis Star Tribune.
  16. Reuter, Tim. "Donald Rumsfeld's Maddening Confession In The Unknown Known". Forbes. Retrieved Sep 4, 2015.
  17. Romney, Jonathan (March 22, 2014). "The Unknown Known review – Donald Rumsfeld gets the Fog of War treatment". Retrieved September 12, 2015.
  18. Turan, Kenneth (April 2, 2014). "Review: 'The Unknown Known' finds Donald Rumsfeld free of self-doubt". Retrieved September 12, 2015.
  19. Thomson, David (Oct 10, 2013). "Donald Rumsfeld Is Finally Under Interrogation". The New Republic. Retrieved Sep 4, 2015.
  20. Colvert, Colin. "Unknown known is no Fog of War 2". Minneapolis Star Tribune. Retrieved Sep 4, 2015.

External links

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