The Unknown Known

Errol Morris must have been ecstatic at the opportunity to interview Donald Rumsfeld for his latest film “The Unknown Known.”

The man, despite his politics and his unique perspective on his actions and the history he helped lead this country through, is a one-of-a-kind showman, infectious in front of interviewers and cameras. He discusses national policy of the gravest of circumstances with paradoxical double speak, and he seems to end each turn of phrase with a disarmingly knowing smirk.

And yet Morris must also have been surprised to talk with Rumsfeld simply because in some ways, he’s been at the root of Morris’s work for the last decade. After “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure,” Rumsfeld can finally give Morris not the answers he’s looking for but the perspective straight from the horse’s mouth.

In some ways, “The Unknown Known” is Morris repeating the style and the work he did in “The Fog of War,” jumping down the same rabbit hole with a different Secretary of Defense. And yet in another, this is Morris doing what he does best, composing an incisive and tense documentary capable of near damning revelations and understandings of perspectives.

“The Unknown Known” is just one of Rumsfeld’s head scratching oxymorons. It refers to things that you think you know but really do not know. To say this is the obvious thesis behind looking for WMDs in Iraq is about all the point Morris needs to make, but Rumsfeld slowly earns your respect and is even convincing through Morris’s Interrotron.

“The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Rumsfeld explains, a perfectly happenstance way of saying he was never really wrong. But what’s so fascinating about Rumsfeld is the methodical way he controls and examines his flow of words over reams of backlogged memos that Morris produces. At one point Morris locates a Holy Grail of a memo that puts all of Rumsfeld’s contradictory statements and philosophies onto paper.

“The Unknown Known” may have no more direction or singular thesis than “The Fog of War” did, but what this film lacks is “Fog of War’s” emotional center and surreal nuance. Nothing in “The Unknown Known” matches the scene in which McNamara relates the relative sizes of Japanese towns to American cities or the bizarre moment where Morris recreates skulls falling down through a staircase.

Morris even goes so far as to try and recreate the score and mood set in “The Fog of War,” this time with an arrangement by Danny Elfman. But his flighty score complete with choir singers and mysterious strings could fit right into a Spiderman or Tim Burton movie without anyone batting an eye.

“Why are you talking to me,” Morris asks Rumsfeld to close out the film. Rumsfeld doesn’t seem to have a good answer, and Morris’s film might not provide one, but it doesn’t seem to matter when the result is this entertaining and so purely Morris’s own.

3 ½ stars


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  1. Reblogged this on The Sanity Clause and commented:

    Errol Morris’s latest, which was released last week, goes wide later this month and I first saw at the Chicago International Film Fesitval, draws heavily from his Oscar winning masterpiece “The Fog of War,” and while “The Unknown Known” is not as surreal or profound as the latter, Donald Rumsfeld is a compellingly charming subject, and Morris probes deep into his hypocrisy and double speak.


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