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Donald Rumsfeld dodges the bait in The Unknown Known

Donald Rumsfeld dodges the bait in The Unknown Known

As its subtitle suggests, one reason that Errol Morris's 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara proved so resonant is that its subject was partly a proxy for his most notorious professional successor. "I don't do quagmires," Donald Rumsfeld said in a news briefing around that time, and there was the desperate sense that if life lessons could be learned from a chief architect of the Vietnam War, they sure as hell ought to be learned by a chief architect of the Iraq War. Rumsfeld is marginally more available now, and The Unknown Known is an unmistakably Morris-ish enterprise: built around a single-source interview, with the source looking straight into the camera and letting us try to get a read on him. It's too bad that Morris manages mostly just to extend the sport that Rumsfeld made of seeming callous — albeit absorbingly — at press conferences. Here again, Rumsfeld takes questions as if only for the challenge of riposting them with non-answers, either because he's unable or unwilling to assess the real consequences of his policy decisions in a meaningful way. Every time Morris seems to be handing over rope for Rummy to hang himself with, the smug bastard just ties it into a fancy Boy Scout knot. Of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, he says, "I felt a very strong sense that something terrible had happened — on my watch." But quite unlike McNamara reflecting on Vietnam, he doesn't seem even a little bit broken up about it.