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Review: Errol Morris' Donald Rumsfeld Doc 'The Unknown Known' Both Insightful & Unsatisfying

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist April 2, 2014 at 5:14PM

As we inch towards another potential war in the Middle East, the last couple are still being pored over by filmmakers. We’re still likely some time away from the definitive takes on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we have seen a few solid films telling those stories in the last decade or so, albeit tending to focus on the men on the ground, rather than the architects of the conflict. The men who planned and executed the wars might have been out of office for some time, but they’re not showing any particular willingness to talk things over. Well, except one. Sort of.
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The Unknown Known, Errol Morris

As we inch towards another potential war in the Middle East, the last couple are still being pored over by filmmakers. We’re still likely some time away from the definitive takes on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we have seen a few solid films telling those stories in the last decade or so, albeit tending to focus on the men on the ground, rather than the architects of the conflict. The men who planned and executed the wars might have been out of office for some time, but they’re not showing any particular willingness to talk things over. Well, except one. Sort of.

Donald Rumsfeld was George W. Bush’s Secretary Of Defense during the early years of the wars (having previously held the position during the Ford administration—at the time, he was the youngest ever in the job), and became for many the public face of the conflict, thanks to his often combative press conferences. Having resigned in 2006 when public opinion turned against him, Rumsfeld moved into retirement, but he’s been convinced to sit down with filmmaker Errol Morris (who got quiet revelations from Vietnam-era Secretary Of Defense Robert McNamara in his Oscar-winning “ The Fog of War”) for the director’s new film “The Unknown Known.”

The film certainly serves as something of a cousin to “The Fog Of War,” with the focus placed almost entirely on an extended interview with his subject. Morris has more material to work with here, though—Rumsfeld dictated regular memos (or, as he calls them, “snowflakes”) throughout his career that have subsequently been archived, and which, according to him, may number in the millions. Now (mostly) unclassified, Morris intersperses his more direct questions by getting Rumsfeld to read some of these memos directly into his trademark “Interrotron,” which allows Morris to interview his subjects while still allowing them to look directly into camera.

As the title suggests—it refers to Rumsfeld’s famous quotes about W.M.D.s, involving “known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns and unknown knowns”—Morris is at least in part interested in the wordplay of conflict, and is lucky in having the man who pioneered the kind of Orwellian double-speak that became so prevalent in the run-up to, and during, the war in Iraq. It’s when the film digs into these kind of semantics that it proves most effective, and provides the moments where Rumsfeld comes closest to squirming.

But the focus of the movie is a little wider, and while the insights into Rumsfeld’s early years or his role in the Nixon administration are fairly enjoyable, the film could have benefited from the more coherent approach of “The Fog Of War.” In part, it seems like that material is in there just to mix things up visually, and it’s here too that the film isn’t entirely convincing—while Morris has a particularly cinematic approach for a documentarian, he all too often resorts to over-literal and borderline-hacky archive footage to pair with Rumsfeld’s voice-over.

Most crucially, it seems that Morris may have met his match in his subject, or at least grew a little too enamored of him. Rumsfeld is relatively likeable on screen, for all his past sins—smug, certainly, but rather avuncular and grandfatherly. Morris asks the occasional tough question, but he’s never particularly aggressive. And with Rumsfeld clearly still the career politician, he ultimately proves too slippery for his interviewer, who fails to get much real reflection or revelation out of him.

It may just be that not enough time has passed—there’s a big difference between the forty years that went by before McNamara sat down for “The Fog Of War,” and the ten between the start of the Iraq war and “The Unknown Known.” And with Rumsfeld in his 80s, you can see why Morris was keen to get him on record when he had the opportunity. From a procedural perspective, the film is an insightful look into the life of a Secretary Of Defense, but as an exploration into how the war in Iraq was allowed to happen, it’s much, much less satisfying. [C]

This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Venice International Film Festival.


This article is related to: The Unknown Known, Errol Morris, Reviews, Review


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