Errol Morris, who with the exception of Frederick Wiseman is the leading American practitioner of documentary filmmaking, won an Oscar in 2004 for "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara." In an extended interview, the Vietnam-era defense secretary explained, defended, repented and became, arguably, a sympathetic figure, since even he seemed to consider unforgivable his role in one of the great foreign policy debacles of the 20th century.
Anyone expecting the same from "The Unknown Known," which subjects Donald Rumsfeld to a grilling by Interrotron (the device by which Morris, a Hewlett native, can film a face-to-face interview while also conducting it), will be surprised, disappointed, possibly delighted but ultimately appalled. Rumsfeld's career -- as a congressman, Nixon aide, White House chief of staff to Gerald Ford and defense secretary to both Ford and George W. Bush -- provides the backdrop to his interview by Morris, who consistently allows Rumsfeld to trip over his own words, many of them immortalized in the 20,000 or so memos, or "snowflakes" with which he blizzarded the Pentagon during his time in office. (As is his wont, Morris creates visual accents to the central content, one of them being a virtual snowstorm of memorandums.)
But Rumsfeld never acknowledges a veracity gap in anything he's written -- or said, or done -- regarding Iraq, Abu Ghraib, torture, WMD or any matter on which Morris challenges him. He can't be challenged. He exhibits no insight. No self-reflection. Certainly no second thoughts about the record of the Bush administration. Interviewing Rumsfeld is the same as proving a negative.
And in this, "The Unknown Known," a title lifted from one of Rumsfeld's more pretzel-logic utterances, is a masterpiece of subtlety. Morris doesn't "break" Rumsfeld, as some think he did McNamara. He has held a mirror up to the man, and found no reflection. The viewer simply has to realize that what's important is what's not there.
PLOT Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, under the microscope of filmmaker Errol Morris.
BOTTOM LINE A horror film about power, personality and the myopia of evil.