Review: The Unknown Known

The Unknown Known is so dense with blood boiling groaners that I had to finish it in three or four sittings. Part of the fun for me was listening to all the prerelease interviews with Errol Morris trying very hard to describe Rumsfeld without using the epithet “sociopath.”

The oncoming infirmities of old age will occasionally soften the edges of our personalities and Rumsfeld appropriates this effect quite well. He is gentle and ingratiating; his eyes brim with supplication and childlike enthusiasm. It’s difficult not to humanize him, but when Morris shows you footage of the young Rumsfeld, it’s clear he’s a pitiless career politician, all self-satisfied smirks and grimaces, mannerisms which he engraved on his pupil, Dick Cheney. The illusion of his humble elderly charm is also exposed by a hideous cheesy grin that betrays his low cunning and idiotic callousness.

Morris wields irony like a sledgehammer and Rumsfeld does not disappoint in eagerly and shamelessly offering up brazenly hypocritical statements like watermelons to be smashed, particularly with regards to Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld says that the American people were not tricked into thinking Hussein was affiliated in any fashion with Al Qaeda; Morris shows us a clip of Rumsfeld calling Hussein a liar for denying his connections to Al Qaeda. Rumsfeld calls Hussein self-deluded and narcissistic; the interrotron camera holds fast to Rumsfeld’s face, at first gleaming with pride at his succinct judgment, it then fades into discomfort and almost embarrassment. His embarrassment becomes our own, becomes the grief of an entire nation of delusional nitwits.

Morris has a real gift for asking obvious questions, and asking (sometimes yelling) them as if they were obvious! I feel this blessing so profoundly it almost brings tears to my eyes. American political discourse is built from the ground up to avoid doing this very thing.