In 2003 the journalist Hart Seeley published “Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry ofDonald H. Rumsfeld,” a book that arranged some of the public pronouncements of that secretary of defense into spiky, evocative morsels of free verse. Mr. Rumsfeld may have been an accidental poet, but “The Unknown Known,” Errol Morris’s new documentary about him, nonetheless makes an implicit argument for his literary distinction. Not only does Mr. Rumsfeld revel in his status as the proud and prolific author — via his beloved Dictaphone — of memos known at the Pentagon as “snowflakes,” but he also shows himself to be a man fascinated by language and delighted by his ability to use it.
With Mr. Morris’s off-camera encouragement, Mr. Rumsfeld, voluble and energetic in his early 80s, reads aloud from a dozen or so of his most memorable snowflakes. (He guesses that he composed around 20,000 during his six-year tenure in the administration of George W. Bush and possibly a million in the course of his career in politics and business.) The headings of several of the memos are “Definitions” and “Terminology,” and their author seems to have been fond of sharing passages from various dictionaries with staff members.
Clips from press briefings during the Iraq war illustrate his penchant for using semantics as a weapon, one he wields with undiminished glee against Mr. Morris. When the filmmaker presses him on the “torture memos” authorizing harsh treatment of suspected terrorists, Mr. Rumsfeld rephrases the question in such a way as to minimize any moral stigma and also any hint of his own responsibility. “Little different cast I just put on it than the one you did,” he says, breaking into a smile and raising a finger of triumph. “I’ll chalk that one up.”
And “The Unknown Known,” which draws its title from one of Mr. Rumsfeld’s most famous rhetorical flights, is very much a battle of wits and words. Yes, it is a probing and unsettling inquiry into the recent political and military history of the United States, but it is also a bracing and invigorating philosophical skirmish. The tension between those two registers — between hard facts about state violence and devilish abstractions about causes and consequences — is what gives the film some of its energy and suspense. It is clear enough that an ideological chasm separates the unseen interviewer from his crisply dressed subject, but the real drama between them arises from a clash of epistemologies.
While it is unlikely that Mr. Rumsfeld would describe himself as a postmodernist, he does seem to be invested in the obscurity of truth and the indeterminacy of meaning, and to believe that what we know is constructed by language rather than reflected in it. An important figure in a political faction famously committed to creating its own reality, he patiently explains the role that “imagination” plays in world affairs. Mr. Morris, an ardent old-school positivist, suggests the word “intelligence” as a substitute.
In his writings on photography, on the historian of science Thomas Kuhn and on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case (some of them first published in the online opinion section of The New York Times), Mr. Morris insists that the truth, though it may be obscured by circumstance and clouded by human error, exists and can be known. His films can be dizzyingly discursive, but they are also motivated by a doggedly empirical impulse. The unreliability of human beings — our propensity to lie, to spin, to delude ourselves and one another — is for him an ethical problem rather than a metaphysical puzzle.
Though Mr. Morris’s filmmaking technique is supple and sophisticated — “The Unknown Known” weaves its central interview through archival footage, poetic images of snow globes and seascapes and discreet re-enactments, using Danny Elfman’s spooky score as connective tissue — he has a fairly straightforward interviewing method. He gives his interlocutors plenty of rope. But rather than hang himself, Mr. Rumsfeld tries to fashion a ladder and escape through the window.
Unlike Robert S. McNamara, another former defense secretary who sat for a portrait in front of Mr. Morris’s camera (in “The Fog of War”), Mr. Rumsfeld is untroubled by second thoughts or pangs of conscience. At times, the discrepancy between his view of himself and the historical record is almost comical, as when he waves off the suggestion that he was a ruthlessly Machiavellian player in the internecine Republican struggles of the 1970s. He portrays himself both as selflessly loyal and as ferociously independent, and when asked whether he sees himself as the master or the pawn of events answers both and neither. When Mr. Morris wonders if it might have been better to stay out of Iraq — a view now widely held among Americans of both political parties — Mr. Rumsfeld takes refuge in the unknowable. “Time will tell,” he says.
“The Unknown Known” may or may not influence the judgment of history. Your sense of who “wins” — the filmmaker or his subject — is likely to reflect your opinion going in. The film is a cat-and-mouse game in which each player thinks he’s the cat, making it both thrilling and disconcerting to watch. It is also a nature documentary about behavior at the very top of the imperial food chain and a detective story about the search for a mystery that is hidden in plain sight.
Mr. Rumsfeld presents himself as a man without secrets or ulterior motives, as legible as one of his snowflakes, untroubled by doubt and continually surprised by circumstance, shrewd and guileless, modest and vain. He explains himself clearly and remains impossible to read.
“The Unknown Known” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Thousands of deaths, bloodlessly discussed.