Directed by: Errol Morris.
Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known makes an interesting companion piece to his Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War. That film, which came out on the eve of the War in Iraq, was a feature length interview with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara – the architect of the Vietnam War. In the 30 years that had passed between McNamara’s involvement in the war, and the interview with Morris, he had a lot of time to reflect on what happened – what went wrong and his own culpability in that. McNamara may not have been overly apologetic, but he was intelligent, thoughtful and had the ability to admit at least some his mistakes.
Now comes The Unknown Known, which takes the same approach as The Fog of War, except this time with Donald Rumsfeld – one of the architects of the war in Iraq. The film isn’t nearly as enlightening as The Fog of War was – and this probably because of two reasons – first, that not as much time has passed between Iraq and the interview, and second, and more importantly, Donald Rumsfeld is not as open as McNamara was. He deflects Morris’ questions, hides behind semantics and when Morris catches him in either a lie, or a misstatement of facts, Rumsfeld simply tells another lie, or laughs it off.
Through the course of the movie, you can tell Morris is becoming frustrated. He, of course, invented the infamous Interrotron, which allows his interview subjects to look directly at him and into the camera at the same time – as well as having the ability to throw up other information on a screen for the interview subject to read. This results in a much more direct communication between the subject being interviewed and the audience. For the most part, Morris likes to remain silent in his movie – he isn’t Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock who thrusts themselves to the forefront of his movies – if he ever even appears on camera in one of them, I cannot recall it. He prefers to let his subject communicate directly with the audience. During the course of The Unknown Known however, we hear Morris’ voice far more often than usual. This is for a very simple reason – he knows Rumsfeld is lying to him, and he cannot sit there and let those lies go unchallenged.
The movie, therefore, does not really offer much new insight into the war in Iraq. Amazingly, Rumsfeld still feels content to tow the Bush party line on almost every issue, saying things that we all know are blatantly untrue – but damn it, he’s sticking to it. But it does offer an interesting portrait of Rumsfeld himself. This is a man who issued thousands of memos during his time as Defense Secretary – most of them now public – and Morris gets him to read some of them. The title comes from one such memo, where Rumsfeld details the differences between “known knowns” (things we know we know), known unknown (things we know we don’t know), unknown unknowns (things we don’t know we don’t know) and unknown knowns (things we know, but don’t know we know, or perhaps it’s the other way around – like with everything else, Rumsfeld doesn’t hesitate to change his mind whenever it suits him).
The portrait that emerges in The Unknown Known is that of a person who doesn’t seem to be bothered by just how badly things went in Iraq. Morris is obsessed with the details, and what went wrong, and why, but Rumsfeld doesn’t seem to care that much. He smiles, he laughs it off and basically tells Morris he’s too obsessed with this stuff. The film ventures back to the past to go over Rumsfeld’s political career – from his time in Congress, to working for Nixon and Ford, to the moment he loses out on being Reagan’s running mate to George Bush Sr. (this seems like the only moment that bugs him – although he doesn’t give Morris much more than a grim look). Rumsfeld basically skated through his time in politics – seemingly missed every scandal. He wasn’t much trusted by those around him – they know he was mainly self-serving - but he was always a safe choice. Morris is never quite able to crack Rumsfeld – never able to get under his skin, to see who he really is behind the face he has shown over his political career. That makes The Unknown Known not among Morris’ best work, because normally he’s able to do that. But he can’t crack Rumsfeld. Maybe the reason is there’s nothing really to crack. What you see is what you get.
Note: I saw The Unknown Known at TIFF 2013, and as far as I know, nothing has changed since then. It is being released in New York and LA this week as part of an Oscar qualifying run – although since it didn’t make the documentary shortlist last week (although it should have), that doesn’t really matter. I’m sure the film will go wider at some point – Errol Morris is one of the few documentary filmmakers who can pretty much guarantee some sort of release of his films.