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The Unknown Known (2013)

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Former United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, discusses his career in Washington D.C. from his days as a congressman in the early 1960s to planning the invasion of Iraq in 2003.


Errol Morris


Errol Morris
2 wins & 8 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview:
Donald Rumsfeld ... Himself
Errol Morris ... Himself - Interviewer (voice)


Former United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, discusses his career in Washington D.C. from his days as a congressman in the early 1960s to planning the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


What you didn't know you didn't know. See more »

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images and brief nudity | See all certifications »






Release Date:

16 January 2014 (Italy) See more »

Also Known As:

The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld See more »


Box Office

Opening Weekend USA:

$64,315, 6 April 2014

Gross USA:


Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Dolby Digital



Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


This same director also made Fog of War, a similar film that featured an extensive interview with Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Both films were highly critical of their lead subjects management of war. See more »

Crazy Credits

Ivan & Boris See more »


Featured in At the Movies: Venice Film Festival 2013 (2013) See more »


White Christmas
Written by Irving Berlin
Performed by Tennessee Ernie Ford
Courtesy of Capitol Records Nashville under license from Universal Music Enterprises
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User Reviews

Rumsfeld Unplugged
6 April 2014 | by copyright908See all my reviews

The Unknown Known

There is a myth about the documentary film genre that it is some sort of quest for objective truth; when in fact there is no greater and often times no more effective means of subjective film making . No documentarian worth his salt is going to go forward with a project without a point of view.

And so it is with documentarian Errol Morris as he tries to pin down former defense secretary Don Rumsfeld to some objective truths about the war in Iraq. It's slow going.

For Morris this is not without precedent. In his "The Fog of War" he was able to get Lyndon Johnson's (and I should also add John Kennedy's) secretary of defense Robert Mac Namara, a chief architect of the Viet Nam war to show contrition, regret and even self pity about the advice he gave and decisions he made during that turbulent time. To those like Morris who believe that the Viet Nam war was a disaster, this must have proved satisfying. They gave him an Academy Award for it . Morris also believes the Iraq war was a disaster but in Rumsfeld he found a much tougher nut to crack.

The film documents Rumsfeld's rise to power as a career politician and bureaucrat in which he navigated through many a troubled water to become a trusted confidant and administrator for Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush the second, and given a certain set circumstances might have become President of the United States. But he made some enemies too, Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman, George Bush the first, and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, as well as a very public feud with Condoleezza Rice. And these were his fellow Republicans! Richard Nixon called Rumsfeld "a ruthless little bastard" and I can't imagine a statement like that coming from higher authority.

The long and the short of it is that Rumsfeld has faced off against a lot tougher guys than Errol Morris.

Morris seems now to suspect that Rumsfeld might have got the best of him, since in his post release interviews he emphasizes how Rumsfeld "horrifies' him. However, that doesn't come off in the film. Rumsfeld appears to be a man of considerable charm and wit, with an easy humor about events and himself.

It is well to remember that Rumsfeld fully co-operated with this project, one might even say eagerly co-operated. He wanted his side publicly aired and decided to do it this way, even though he knew Morris's predisposition. To Morris's credit he gives Rumsfeld free reign and ample opportunity to make his case.

But Rumsfeld does not control the editing process and it here that Morris strikes back. Using cross cutting, graphics, and archival footage Morris exposes Rumsfeld's renowned candor as a smokescreen for obfuscation and evasion. Most particularly, in Rumsfeld's now famous, or infamous if you prefer, philosophical rumination on what could be known or unknown , or whatever the hell he said, in response to a direct question as to whether he (Rumsfeld) had any evidence that Sadam Hussein had participated or assisted in the 9/11 attacks. This was called by the press at the time (rather admiringly I might add) as "Rummy speak".

In the film Rumsfeld admits there wasn't then and isn't now any such evidence.

Even more telling to me was his mastery of expressing a limited truth and passing it off as candor. In summing up the Viet Nam War Rumsfeld says this: "Some things work out, some things don't .That one didn't." Hard to argue with that. True, as far as it goes, but it does not illuminate. Hell, I could have come up with that over a couple of Irish Whiskeys at the local tavern, and maybe even thought to be pretty profound by my fellow inebriates at the bar, but I think we have a right to expect more than that from our public officials. Did we learn anything? Would we do anything differently? In listening to Rumsfeld's echo the answer is apparently and depressingly, no. Given the perceived threats at the respective times in Iraq and Viet Nam, our policy makers did exactly the same thing.

Author Evan S. Connell in his book "Son of the Morning Star" recounts how General Philip Sheridan as one of the key policy makers leading to the destruction of the Plains Indian tribes after the defeat of Custer at the Little Big Horn, reflected on his role. Sheridan seemed to empathize with the Indians and implied that had the situations been reversed, he would have acted in the very same way the Indians had. He would have resisted. To which Connell comments: "Like other generals, bureaucrats and private citizens who contribute to some irrevocable disaster, he wondered about it afterward."

Not Donald Rumsfeld, no qualms, no regrets, no apologies. He did his duty and history can sort it out. And of course it will.

Morris ends the film with a shot of an empty ocean which I took to be metaphor and interpreted thus: It is shimmering and shiny, even magnificent to look at but who knows what horrors lie beneath the surface. Like Donald Rumsfeld, it covers the "Unknown Knowns".

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