Monday, April 28, 2014

The Unknown Known Movie Review

There is certainly a strong kinship between, and a through line connecting, Errol Morris’s 2002 documentary The Fog of War, whose subject was former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and his latest, The Unknown Known, in which he sits down for a series of lengthy interviews with the linguistically elusive Donald Rumsfeld. In the earlier film, McNamara illustrated eleven lessons from his professional life in the Air Force and, in the Cabinets of both Kennedy and Johnson, the architect of the Vietnam War. He proved himself reflective and introspective, a man willing to examine his choices and the decisions of presidents and other high level officials, and say that something was wrong. It would be shocking to expect a similar ‘get’ from Rumsfeld and of course it never comes. But that’s not really what Morris is after.


Morris’s endgame isn’t to coax some bold admission of guilt or wrongdoing from Rumsfeld, but a probing of facts, knowledge, and perception, and how knowable any objective truth either is or is not. It’s clear beyond doubt that Morris and Rumsfeld are on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and throughout their conversations – facilitated by Morris’s revolutionary Interrotron device that allows his subjects to peer directly into camera while also facing their interlocutor – we sense a little bit of cat-and-mouse.

My suspicion is that most people will walk away from this documentary with feelings about Rumsfeld no different than before they sat down. Morris isn’t trying in Michael Moore fashion to make Rumsfeld into a buffoon or catch him in a lie or a series of them. We can, at times, sense the unseen but heard Morris’s incredulousness at certain of Rumsfeld’s responses. Morris is a man who does a prodigious amount of research prior to sitting with his subjects. Rumsfeld estimates he dictated some 20,000 memos, or “snowflakes” as they were known at the Pentagon, during his six year tenure, and possibly as many as a million throughout his political career, beginning during the Nixon administration.

Morris has probably read a fair majority, if not all, of them. He occasionally has their author read them aloud for the camera, isolating their occasional clever wordplay in a moment bereft of their original context while focusing on a close-up of a snow globe with its whirling white flakes inside set to an eerie score by Danny Elfman. Morris’s style remains in top form with continued use of archival footage, blended with graphics, well-hidden reenactments, and words upon words in the form of dictionary definitions, an oft utilized go-to in both Rumsfeld’s memos and his press conferences.

Rumsfeld’s now infamous note about how to divide the sum total of knowledge into different categories: the “known known;” the “known unknown;” and of course the one that lends the film its title, the “unknown known.” That is to say, “things you think you know which it turns out you did not.” Whatever you think of him or the decision to invade Iraq, I think it’s undeniable that Rumsfeld doesn’t seem to latch onto the irony of that last bit. Even if you still feel those early military decisions made in 2003 were the right ones given the circumstances, it’s hard to escape the fact that nothing has turned out the way the administration anticipated, precisely because of all those unknown knowns. And Morris sort of masterfully guides his subject into a comfort zone in which, even if he remains guarded and cagey, using linguistic games to cover and obscure meaning.

As unapologetic as he is and without any hint of reexamining decisions made during the Bush administration, you have to ask yourself why this man would willingly sit down with a documentarian like Morris. In fact, Morris closes the film with exactly that query. Rumsfeld seems caught off guard and accuses him of asking a “vicious question.” He settles himself for a moment and responds in his usual more measured way, adding that really has no idea. It’s a beautiful little closing note coming from a man who is himself an unknown known, but who remains as sharp as ever in his early 80s.

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