Review Of Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”

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Errol Morris Donald Rumsfeld The Unknown KnownErrol Morris’s excellent 2013 film, The Unknown Known, will indubitably be compared to 2003’s The Fog Of War, and many — for reasons irrelevant to the films themselves — will not like this. They’ll point to how ‘slippery’ Donald Rumsfeld is, vis-a-vis Robert S. McNamara, and how difficult it was for Morris to tease out the answers that he (and his audience) wanted. They’ll point to the facade that Rumsfeld erects, and use that impenetrability as a means of keeping the film from greater company. And, of course, they’ll note that Rumsfeld’s charisma — at least here — and his well-placed pauses, the odd philosophical quips, the memorable phrasings, are quite at odds with the man’s total lack of integrity. In fact, they will probably hate him (and the film by proxy) for it, since Rumsfeld is unwilling to provide the sort of resolutions that they, as beings with moral biases, absolutely need. If un-exacted, there is a feeling that something is, for lack of a better phrase, not quite ‘whole’. And given that we’re dealing with a film — that is, a work of art — it’s all too easy to extrapolate this lack of ‘wholeness’ with an aesthetic one, for while The Fog Of War is clearly a superior film, it is superior for reasons almost 100% contrary to those typically given, even as both films are far more alike than not.

The short answer is that The Unknown Known does less with more, and while it is an error to merely expect answers from an art-work, the answers that Morris’s latest film provides are not only more tame (which is forgivable), but often limited to base political queries that have already been much dissected elsewhere, as opposed to Fog Of War’s more transcendent ones. In the earlier film, for instance, Errol Morris extrapolates “11 Lessons” from McNamara’s life, thus allowing the former Secretary Of Defense to opine on things beyond war or the details of some now-hazy political event. By contrast, The Unknown Known has a stellar first half — as good as anything Morris has ever done, really — with great poetic visuals, memorable little quips from Rumsfeld that get polished and inverted at the narrative unfolds, and a controlling metaphor that subtly posits his tens of thousands of internal memos as pointless, even duplicitous exercises forced upon the White House staff over many decades. The image of “snowflakes” (Rumsfeld’s affectionate term for these documents) only adds to this effect by twisting our normal associations with snow into something altogether different — sinister, even — as the film moves through wintry scenes. But while Fog Of War keeps this sort of thrust for the entirety of its 107 minutes, The Unknown Known’s second half devolves into a far more ‘informational’ film that, ironically, doesn’t offer any more information than we’ve already learned in the past decade, making its utter dependence upon context (as opposed to what’s on the screen) frustrating. Yes, … Continue reading →