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Rumsfeld is no McNamara in new documentary

In Errol Morris' 2003 documentary "The Fog of War," former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted that some of his actions might have been war crimes.

Donald Rumsfeld thinks self-doubt is for wimps, and he doesn't go anywhere near it in "The Unknown Known," a new Morris documentary about another Secretary of Defense and another disastrous war. Rumsfeld keeps a cocky half-smile on his face as he bats away Morris' questions with the serene assurance of someone who's never had a reflective moment.

Vietnam?

"Some things work out. Some things don't. That didn't," Rumsfeld says.

Iraq?

"Time will tell."

We don't have wait for history's verdict on the U.S.-led Iraq War: more than 100,000 dead (some estimates are much higher), more than $2 trillion in cost, a region more unsettled than ever, and on it goes. We would do well not to wait for any sign of contrition from Rumsfeld because all we're going to get is a blizzard of words that ultimately mean nothing. That's what makes "The Unknown Known" a fascinating and frustrating film; Rumsfeld thinks he can use an obsession with language and Pentagon Dictionary definitions to talk his way through anything. He has the confidence of a master bureaucrat, and listening to him read a memo in which he effortlessly cut Condoleezza Rice out of the loop makes it easy to understand how he got to the top and stayed there.

Rumsfeld was notorious for dictating so many memos they were nicknamed "snowflakes," and Morris can't resist showing a snow globe as Danny Elfman's music swirls around us. Morris goes with another visual trope -- onscreen type spinning and crashing around Rumsfeld's head. He does use "Rumsfeld's Rules" against him and catches the canny SecDef in a few contradictions and outright lies, but Rumsfeld is way too cagey to get pinned down by Morris' credulous questions.

Rumsfeld came into office saying he was afraid of another Pearl Harbor, which he calls "a failure of imagination." When the Sept. 11 attacks occurred on his watch, he uses the same phrase and Morris never asks how such a shocking strike could hit the heart of American financial and military power. The best Morris can do for a follow-up is after Rumsfeld blithely asserts that he never read the Justice Department's torture memos.

"Really?" Morris asks.

Morris invented a camera technique that allows him to film his subjects speaking directly into the camera. it's his signature look, and he's used it to great effect in "The Fog of War," "Tabloid," and many of the commercials that are his bread and butter. (He shot the current Taco Bell campaign with real people named Ronald McDonald saying how much they love cheap Mexican food.) Morris calls his two-way mirror set-up the Interrotron and puts Rumsfeld in front of it throughout "The Unknown Known." Rumsfeld is as comfortable in front of it as he would be in an easy chair, flipping through a scrapbook: here's me in the Nixon administration, here's me inspecting the troops the first time I was Secretary of Defense. There's young Dick Cheney, back when he was my assistant! Boy, those were the days, back when Gerald Ford was president. We were really something.

"The Unknown Known" comes from one of Rumsfeld's press briefings, back in 2002, when he was riding high. He talked about "known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."

It sounds like gibberish, but it makes sense if you parse it out. Morris has Rumsfeld read a snowflake about it, and Rumsfeld admits he might have gotten it backwards. No matter. Language means whatever you want it to, at least for him.

***

"THE UNKNOWN KNOWN"

Grade: B

Rating: PG-13

Running time: 103 minutes

Cast and crew: Donald Rumsfeld; directed by Errol Morris.

The lowdown: Errol Morris puts the former Secretary of Defense in front of the Interrotron and gets nothing revelatory out of him, not surprisingly for a politician so cunning but not enough for a documentary that bookends "The Fog of War."

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