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The Unknown Known

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The Unknown Known
Theatrical release poster
Directed byErrol Morris
Written byErrol Morris
Produced byRobert Fernandez
Amanda Branson Gill
Errol Morris
StarringDonald Rumsfeld
Errol Morris
CinematographyRobert Chappell
Edited bySteven Hathaway
Music byDanny Elfman
History Films
Moxie Pictures
Participant Media
Distributed byRadius-TWC
Release dates
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$301,604[1]

The Unknown Known (also known as The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld) is a 2013 American documentary film about the political career of former U.S. Secretary of Defense and congressman Donald Rumsfeld, directed by Academy Award winning documentarian and filmmaker Errol Morris. It is a summary of 33 hours of interviews that Morris conducted with Rumsfeld over eleven separate sessions during visits to Newton, Massachusetts. The film was released on April 4, 2014, by Radius-TWC, and is dedicated to the memory of Roger Ebert.


The major portion of the film is spent addressing excerpts from the countless memos, nicknamed "Yellow Perils" by his first Pentagon staff and "Snowflakes" by his second, that Rumsfeld wrote during his time as a congressman and advisor to four different presidents, twice as United States Secretary of Defense.[2][3] It also focuses on a response Rumsfeld gave to a question at a U.S. Department of Defense news briefing on February 12, 2002, about the lack of evidence linking the government of Iraq with the supply of weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. The content of the memos are varied, covering everything from the aftermath of Watergate, to the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, to the definition of the word "terrorism". Morris returns to the motif of snowflakes swirling within a globe throughout the documentary as he discusses the memos with Rumsfeld, the contents of which the Defense Secretary allowed him limited access to while preparing the film, and several of which Rumsfeld reads aloud on camera.[3][4]

At the beginning of the film, Rumsfeld argues that a major purpose of the Department of Defense is to evaluate "unknown knowns", or "the things you think you know, that it turns out you did not", to anticipate hostile actions before they take place. Illustrating his point, Rumsfeld suggests that the failure of the United States to anticipate the attack on Pearl Harbor was a failure of imagination.[2]

Rumsfeld during a Pentagon news briefing.

As the interviews proceed, several times Morris attempts to point out things that Rumsfeld says which he thinks contradict either fact or Rumsfeld's own past statements, but, as noted in several reviews of the film,[3][5][6] Rumsfeld does not always directly acknowledge what Morris is referring to or engage in deeper discourse, and at times he deflects the points raised. When Morris asks Rumsfeld about lessons he learned from the Vietnam War, however, Rumsfeld straightforwardly states: "Some things work out, some things don't. That didn't." Rumsfeld also expresses good-natured surprise at the recognition of a list of torture techniques—including hooding, stress positions, and nudity—that he personally approved for use on Guantánamo detainees, stating: "Good grief! That’s a pile of stuff!"[3] In follow up, Morris questions Rumsfeld about the so-called "Torture Memos" describing enhanced interrogation techniques. When Rumsfeld indicates that he never read them, Morris responds in disbelief: "Really?"[7] When asked if the Iraq War was a mistake, Rumsfeld replies: "I guess time will tell."[6]

In the penultimate scene of the film, Morris questions Rumsfeld again about "unknown knowns", and Rumsfeld inverts the definition given earlier, defining them as: "things that you know, that you don't know you know". Morris is quick to point out the incongruity, and Rumsfeld acknowledges it when shown his original memo, but he asserts that he thinks he misdefined the term when he wrote the memo.[2][4] As the film closes, Morris asks Rumsfeld why he agreed to the interviews, and Rumsfeld responds: "That is a vicious question. I'll be darned if I know."[2]


  • Donald Rumsfeld as himself (interviewee)
  • Errol Morris as himself (interviewer) (voice)
  • Kenn Medeiros as younger Donald Rumsfeld / Secret Service


The Unknown Known was screened in the main competition section at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, and premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on August 29, 2013.[8][9][10][11][2]

Critical reception[edit]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 81% based on 106 reviews, with an average score of 6.8/10; the site's "critics consensus" reads: "Viewers hoping to see Donald Rumsfeld admit making mistakes in public office may find The Unknown Known frustrating – but no less fascinating."[12] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 69 out of 100 based on 30 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[13]

David Denby of The New Yorker wrote: "If Morris doesn’t quite nail Rumsfeld, his questions lead the Secretary to nail himself. You watch him obfuscate, fudge the issue of torture, smirk about George H. W. Bush (whom he doesn’t like), and offer dull commonplaces when impassioned clarity is called for."[14] Mary Corliss of Time wrote: "Morris's movie is a cat-and-mouse game, and Rumsfeld is the cat, virtually licking his chops as he toys with, and then devours, another rival."[15] Colin Colvert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote: "Morris is admirably evenhanded, never demonizing his subject, but giving him enough rope to hang himself. Rumsfeld, cool and bemused, refuses to knot the noose."[16]

Comparisons to The Fog of War[edit]

Reviews have compared the film to Morris's Academy Award-winning predecessor, The Fog of War (2003), a similar interview of Robert McNamara, the longest serving U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Several reviews of The Unknown Known compared it to Morris's Academy Award-winning predecessor The Fog of War (2003), with the follow-up being described as a "spiritual sequel".[17][18][19] The earlier documentary is about Robert McNamara, the longest-serving U.S. Secretary of Defense (Rumsfeld is the second-longest serving). Both film consist largely of interviews with former Defense Secretary octogenarians who were dismissed prematurely from their posts, and who discuss their roles as the voice of some of the most unpopular wars in recent American history—Vietnam for McNamara, and Iraq for Rumsfeld.[2][7]

At one point during discussions about doing interviews and making a film, Morris asked Rumsfeld if he had seen The Fog of War, to which Rumsfeld responded: "I hate it [...] Because that man had nothing to apologize for".[20]

Morris has been resistant to comparisons between the two films, stating: "You can’t call this 'The Fog of War 2'. I can’t imagine two individuals more unalike."[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Unknown Known". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 28, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Morris, Errol (Director) (December 13, 2013). The Unknown Known (Motion picture). Los Angeles, CA: The Weinstein Company.
  3. ^ a b c d Higginbotham, Adam (June 11, 2014). "The Unknown Known: Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld". The Telegraph. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  4. ^ a b Baker, Jeff (April 9, 2014). "'The Unknown Known' review: Donald Rumsfeld, slippery as a snake and just as deadly". The Oregonion. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  5. ^ Kaplan, Fred (March 28, 2014). "Seeking Truth in a Blizzard of 'Snowflakes'". The New York Times. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Hornaday, Ann (April 3, 2014). "'The Unknown Known' review: Documentary lets Donald Rumsfeld have his say". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  7. ^ a b Turan, Kenneth (April 2, 2014). "Review: 'The Unknown Known' finds Donald Rumsfeld free of self-doubt". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 4, 2015.
  8. ^ Guerrasio, Jason (March 20, 2015). "Oscar-winning director Errol Morris reveals what his Netflix series will be about". Business Insider. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
  9. ^ "Venezia 70". Venice Biennale. Retrieved July 27, 2013.
  10. ^ Benzine, Adam (July 25, 2013). "Wiseman, Morris, Gibney set for Venice". Realscreen. Retrieved July 31, 2013.
  11. ^ "Venice film festival 2013: the full line-up". The Guardian. London. July 25, 2013. Retrieved July 27, 2013.
  12. ^ "The Unknown Known (2014)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved April 10, 2020.
  13. ^ "The Unknown Known". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  14. ^ Denby, David (April 21, 2014). "Field Maneuvers". The New Yorker. Retrieved April 10, 2018.
  15. ^ Corliss, Mary (September 6, 2013). "Postcards from Venice Previews of Toronto". Time. Retrieved April 10, 2018.
  16. ^ Colvert, Colin (May 1, 2014). "Donald Rumsfeld, artful dodger, in 'Unknown Known'". Star Tribune. Retrieved April 10, 2018.
  17. ^ Reuter, Tim. "Donald Rumsfeld's Maddening Confession In The Unknown Known". Forbes. Retrieved September 4, 2015.
  18. ^ Romney, Jonathan (March 22, 2014). "The Unknown Known review – Donald Rumsfeld gets the Fog of War treatment". Retrieved September 12, 2015.
  19. ^ Turan, Kenneth (April 2, 2014). "Review: 'The Unknown Known' finds Donald Rumsfeld free of self-doubt". Retrieved September 12, 2015.
  20. ^ Thomson, David (October 10, 2013). "Donald Rumsfeld Is Finally Under Interrogation". The New Republic. Retrieved September 4, 2015.
  21. ^ Colvert, Colin. "Unknown known is no Fog of War 2". Minneapolis Star Tribune. Retrieved September 4, 2015.

External links[edit]