The Unknown Known Blu-ray Review

My introduction to filmmaker Errol Morris came when I was enlisted to screen his film, “The Thin Blue Line,” to a group of film critics. It was the first documentary that I saw that wasn’t music based (WOODSTOCK, GIMME SHELTER) and its power really hit home. I remember being outraged by the facts presented and elated much later when the film was instrumental in getting its subject, a man wrongly convicted of murder and sitting on death row, released from prison. Morris’ latest film takes on the story of another man, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. And again, the facts presented may enrage some and please others.

The Unknown Known

Donald Rumsfeld was known for his memos. By his estimate, he may have sent over one million in his professional career. They were so numerous that they were referred to by his co-workers as “snowflakes.” But it’s those many memos, and their subject matter, that make up the bulk of this look into the events that led to the United States war in Iraq after the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

The Unknown Known

The film also serves as a mini-bio of Rumsfeld. He rose through the ranks, along with future Vice President Dick Cheney, during the Nixon administration. And, like everyone else Richard Nixon came in contact with, he wasn’t trusted. We listen to recordings made in the Oval Office by Nixon as he discusses Rumsfeld with John Erlichman and Henry Kissinger. Nixon is not sure of his loyalty and suggests they remove him from the inner circle. Of course, this was beneficial to Rumsfeld as he was cut loose before the Watergate scandal and was, therefore, not tainted by it. He worked hard for President Ford and recounts being with the president in San Francisco when Sarah Jane Moore took a shot at him, narrowly missing both men. He was thought to be on Ronald Reagan’s short list of Vice Presidential candidates in 1980, though Reagan chose C.I.A. director George H.W. Bush instead. Morris asks him if he thought he could have been vice president and then, perhaps, president. “That’s possible,” Rumsfeld replies softly.

The Unknown Known

The rest of the film deals with the administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, most notably the treatment of those captured. Memos are shown revealing varying levels of torture, from sleep deprivation to the playing of Christina Aguilera music! Rumsfeld is a very literal man, and many of his memos list the dictionary definition of various words. Morris echoes these memos by putting the words and definitions on screen. As the secretary speaks words like “dictator,” “Illegal,” “intelligence” and even “definition” float by. Throughout the film Rumsfeld comes off as a man with a sharp mind and quick wit. When asked about an absence of evidence regarding weapons of mass destruction he replies that “an absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” It is also evident that Rumsfeld loves his country. After watching this film I felt a little sorry that he never got the chance to be President.


Video: Presented in its original 2:39.1 aspect ratio, the transfer is well done. The scenes of Rumsfeld’s interview are bright and the majority of the archival footage use throughout is high quality.

Audio: Presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, the film boasts a score by composer Danny Elman that never overwhelms the on-screen footage. Rumsfeld’s comments are clearly presented.

Audio Commentary: A very straightforward commentary by director Errol Morris, who talks about everything that goes into putting this type of film together.

A Conversation with Errol Morris (8:16): Morris talks about his reason for making the film and where it lies among his other works.

Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense (56:52): A rare assembling of Secretaries of Defense recorded in December 1989. The event is moderated by Hedrick Smith and features Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense for the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations; Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense for the Nixon Administration; James Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense for the Nixon and Ford Administrations; Frank Carlucci, Secretary of Defense for the Reagan Administration; Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense for the Reagan Administration and Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense for both Gerald R. Ford and George W. Bush.

Four-Pat op-Ed “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld”: A four-part segment by Errol Morris that serves as an opinion piece on Donald Rumsfeld.


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