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, it still has the same technical brilliance, and remains perhaps one of the best-shot documentaries ever made, but loses much when Morris forces Rumsfeld to squirm re: his many contradictions and outright lies. It is not, then, Morris’s inability to get answers from Rumsfeld that’s an issue, as is too often argued, but really that his desire for a very specific kind of answer — political, factual — is very much at odds with the film’s more transcendent tinge.

Things open with Donald Rumsfeld reading from an old memo that would come to define his approach to things: “There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns.” The third category is the most interesting and is given contradictory definitions at the beginning and end of the film, nicely recapitulating Rumsfeld’s character as it’s presented here, as well as what could be deduced elsewhere. As with Robert S. McNamara, Morris doesn’t really attack the man, but simply prods Rumsfeld with a few difficult questions that give rise to monologues which come to define him in ways both good and bad. The man, of course, is evasive; he is slick, for he is (unlike McNamara) a long-hardened politician. Yet what is far more interesting is how much better — even if not in an ethical sense — he comes off here than he ever did on television. Perhaps it is the simple editing process, or perhaps Morris — who’s long felt that Rumsfeld is culpable, if not outright evil — intuitively understands what makes for good and bad art, but Rumsfeld is allowed to talk at length, digress from the queries, occasionally show a ‘human’ side, and even deceive the viewer with the sort of well-spoken, charismatic persona that simply never came off in Rumsfeld’s many television appearances over the years, at a time when such things could have really served his interests. As the film progresses, one learns of his approach towards hypotheticals: “Everything seems amazing in retrospect — it’s a failure of imagination. It’s not that you’re not aware of possibilities. It’s that you tend to favor some possibilities over others”; his poetic means of evading queries with a pause and a smile: “All generalizations are false, including this one”; and even his crying over a wounded Iraq vet, whose ultimate survival gets turned into a metaphor for America, as well as Rumsfeld’s own career.

Yet as the film goes on to show, this is merely one of Rumsfeld’s many self-deceptions. When Rumsfeld muses on his time with Saddam Hussein, he thinks back to the dictator’s pomp, and concludes that he was such a great “pretender’; that Saddam would delude himself, over and over again, until he’d safely and irreversibly become the image he portrayed. Morris ensures the camera lingers at this point, and that the words sink in, for while it is never explicitly stated, it is clear that THIS, as opposed to the vet’s survival, is the proper metaphor for Rumsfeld’s career, and a good chunk of two-and-a-half centuries of American foreign policy. It helps, too, that so much of the film’s narrative is expertly paired with images of a vast blue ocean, as well as other backdrops that elude a clear and simple meaning. There is the sense that the ‘unknown known’ is somewhere within these mysteries, and that Rumsfeld, by proxy, is excoriated from start to finish, and held up as a model of opaqueness and deception for the future to gawk at.

The viewer also gets an ‘in’ to Rumsfeld’s private life, via his musings on getting married as young as he did; his inadvertent knowledge of Watergate and Nixon’s almost prescient comments re: Rumsfeld’s character; his (and others’) tackling of Gerald Ford during the assassination attempt, and even the possibility of becoming president — as well as Rumsfeld’s eerie silence after this admission — early on in his career. But while these are all welcome, perhaps necessary, details, they soon give way to Morris’s grilling of Rumsfeld on ‘the facts,’ as Rumsfeld denies his involvement in torture all the while praising its necessity, and weakly tries to defend the Bush Administration. There are no bombshells here, no insight into ‘that’ part of Rumsfeld’s career, but contrary to so many claims, Rumsfeld does not get away with it, at all, for the observant viewer can see past the charisma, and the philosophical little quips, into the image that Rumsfeld tries so hard to build up. This does not bolster the film, however, for the real issue here is that the film — and even Rumsfeld’s on-screen behavior — has little to do with man’s self-destruction. In fact, a good half-hour of The Unknown Known is utterly shackled by its own context, referencing things that have been public knowledge for years now, as well as lies, distortions, and contradictions that were understood as such as soon as they first appeared on television, where Rumsfeld often blundered. This part of the film, then, from the continued lies re: Guantanamo Bay, or the inability to admit defeat in ‘the war on terrorism,’ in all of its forms, is more of a rehash of the public record since 2005 — when the backlash against Bush policies had become mainstream, and shortly before it became a kind of accepted wisdom. In fact, had Morris’s guest been less eloquent and interesting to listen to — deception or not! — or the director, himself, less technically brilliant, this 30-40 minute interlude would play like one of the hundreds of mediocre  ‘informational’ documentaries released year after year.

Yet as much as the viewer might wish to see Donald Rumsfeld hang, at least in the film, it is a misplaced feeling, for the details of his culpability — that is, the facts by which someone is condemned — will in time grow hazy. Torture is still fresh in the minds, as is war. But a century from now? Or two or three, when people will have transcended so much of what the film reveals, and new events, perhaps abstract events, are crowding out the old? Who will remember torture then? What will it matter? All you’ll have is the snow, and Morris’s evocation of such. Perhaps this is why morality, the demand for an ‘ethical sense’ when extrapolated into art, is just so god-damn silly — and myopic. The fact is, Rumsfeld ought not to be de-natured, or forced and tricked into answers he does not wish to give. That would no longer be art — that is, the means to all this; the ‘how’ — but the search, no matter how noble, of something extraneous to it. For all of its minor flaws, The Unknown Known is a catalogue of human ills ca. the 2000s, and while future deceptions might take a different hue, Errol Morris did capture something of Rumsfeld’s. That he created an excellent film in the process ensures that the future will continue to engage Rumsfeld’s evils, whereas a simple Q&A would have damned the man to obscurity. This may not be the vengeance that people wanted, but is in its own way the most instructive and long-lasting one. Let Rumsfeld keep that inner nature, and the kalpas tear it apart!

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