Even after more than forty years in public life, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remains somewhat of an enigma. Errol Morris’ documentary The Unknown Known has the filmmaker hitting Rumsfeld with tough questions. Blending archival footage, charts and an assortment of some 20,000 memos Rumsfeld issued over a six year period, Morris attempts to paint a full an honest picture of a man both reviled and admired by many.

A master of political doubletalk and the architect of the war on terror, Rumsfeld seems to enjoy putting on a bit of a show. During his press briefings as Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld was alternately combative, and chatty. He always made doubting his version of events seem utterly absurd. If someone questioned him, he fired off an accusation, or a joke. After all, you couldn’t be serious, could you? Really then, it’s no surprise that Errol Morris, a skilled and careful questioner, said that Rumsfeld was, “one of the strangest interviews he’s ever done.”

No matter the question, or data he’s confronted with, Rumsfeld remains bound and determined to stick to his various assertions. When asked about Saddam Hussein’s declaration in February 2003 that Iraq had no WMD, he’s quick to retort, Lincoln was short,” smiling as if he just hit the jackpot. Much of the time, Rumsfeld’s answers make you more than slightly uncomfortable, and he seems to like it that way. This is not a man out to win any popularity contests.

The Unknown Known serves as a nice bookend to Morris’ 2003 Oscar winning documentary where he interviews Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The significant difference is that McNamara is willing to admit to mistakes he made in Vietnam. Here, Rumsfeld is so committed to his story; one wonders if he has simply convinced himself that his mistakes and/or lies are indeed the truth. In thinking about that, I couldn’t help but feeling like Donald Rumsfeld is not a particularly complicated man. He sees the world as strictly black and white; meaning if he decides on a strategy, in regards to battle or life, he’s going to stick with it, regardless of output; changing course, just like admitting mistakes, is not an option.

Presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p presentation is a bit of a mixed bag, because it’s made up of new interviews and archival footage. The new footage looks very good. It’s clean, colorful and surprisingly sharp. There doesn’t appear to be any DNR or other digital fixing. Not surprisingly, some of the archival footage doesn’t look nearly as good. However, it’s fine given the nature of the presentation.

The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track has an unexpected amount of surround activity. Dialogue is primarily front and center, but Danny Elfman’s score and occasional archival sound bites are well placed in the rears and front surround channels to create an enveloping experience

English and Spanish subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Audio Commentary with Director Errol Morris: Despite some notable pauses, Morris provides some interesting thoughts and information. He discusses Rumsfeld’s habit of self perception, Vietnam vs. Afghanistan, “The War on Terror,” and more.
  • A Conversation with Errol Morris (HD, 8:15)A kind of introduction to the film, where Morris discusses his initial attempts to get an interview with Rumsfeld, and their initial meetings.
  • The Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense (56:53) From a 1989 Georgia Public TV production. Moderated by New York Times editor and Frontline correspondent Hedrick Smith, this session (“Beyond the Cold War”) includes former SODs Melvin Laird (under Nixon, 1969-1973), Frank Carlucci (Reagan, 1987-89), Caspar Weinberger (Reagan, 1981-87), James R. Schlesinger (Nixon/Ford, 1973-75), Donald Rumsfeld himself (Ford/Bush, 1975-77 and 2001-06), and Robert McNamara (Kennedy/Johnson, 1961-68).
  • The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld: A March 2014 Op-Ed piece by Errol Morris.

Optional subtitles have been included for everything but the commentary.