Film Review: The Unknown Known (2014)

Errol Morris’s twelfth feature, The Unknown Known, focuses on the former political heavy weight Donald Rumsfeld, while also showcasing a master documentarian at work. Cutting back and forth through time, the film begins by probing the semi-recent tumult of 9/11 before arching backwards to Rumsfeld’s early days in the political arena. Morris and Rumsfeld then take us on a visual tour of the last quarter of the 20th Century and into the 21st, finally concluding with Rummy’s ignominious departure from the Bush administration.

This unique journey is conveyed through a barrage of photographs, stock footage and snippets of documents, with frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman tying them together with a hauntingly beautiful albeit overwrought score (a weird combination of Phillip Glass and Batman Returns). Punctuating this is a startling, monochromatic image of a snowglobe that contains a miniature Washington Monument. The small, white flecks of fake snow are shown to be obscuring the shape of the obelisk  (which becomes a key metaphor). Additionally, there are vistas of massive bodies of water, which come to encapsulate other themes of the film.

Of course, the film’s main attraction is the central on camera interview between Rumsfeld and an unseen Morris. Emulating the style of The Fog of War, Morris positions his subject where he is forced to directly address the camera. The result is powerful, with the sheer force of Rumsfeld’s dominant, upsetting yet gregarious personality threatening to overwhelm the viewer.

In an unconventional twist, many of the interview sections do not involve Morris firing a barrage of questions at Rumsfeld. Instead, the politician is prompted to read several critical memos (from the thousands he wrote during his tenure with the Bush Administration) which illustrate many key facets of the man. Rumsfeld’s recitations are charming, illuminating but also profoundly disturbing. The former politician is clearly enamored by his own intellect and Morris’s camera lingers on the man’s face for distressingly long period of time – capturing every furrowed brow and Jack O’ Lantern grin.

Now, The Unknown Known has been unfavorably compared to The Fog of War. Some commentators have claimed that the Rumsfeld doc lacks the emotional heft of that earlier film, and that Morris was not able to unpack the multilayered ethos of Donald Rumsfeld. This is partially true. The image of a deeply troubled Robert McNamara is never emotionally equaled by the content of The Unknown Known, and Rumsfeld does remain a largely confounding, clandestine figure. Still, to label these as significant failings is to miss the point of the film.

What is far more fascinating about the doc is how it evokes Rumsfeld’s clear obsession regarding semantics – that is, his ability to manipulate words and by extension public opinion. The film doesn’t skimp on chronicling this fixation. It includes the news conference where Rummy first coined his now infamous “known knowns” bit,  and focuses on several memos where the Defense Secretary called for definitions of different words that would become part of the national lexicon (when it came to the Iraq war). This crafts a portrait of Rumsfeld that is not overly flattering. Some sections of the interview, such as when the man states that an “absence of evidence” for Iraq WMDs is not “evidence of absence,” are particularly maddening. It’s clear that Rummy is getting his jollies by playing word games that obfuscate easy understanding. This turns the former Secretary into basically what Orwell warned us about in his 1946 essay: “Politics and The English Language.”

What’s unclear however is whether or not Morris was aware that Rumsfeld could be his own worst enemy. During the interviews, the director’s voice is often riddled with disdainful incredulity, and one gets the impression that Morris was aiming for some sort of Robert McNamara or Richard Nixon confessional. Nothing of the sort happens here. Quite frankly, the moments where Rumsfeld is trapped in an obvious lie of omission are the most uninteresting parts of the film, as a deceitful politician is certainly a known known if there ever was one.

Aside from its examination of language, the other real accomplishment of The Unknown Known is how it captures the enormous institution that is the American political arena. This theme is where the recurring image of the snowglobe begins to make sense, as Rumsfeld labeled the endless memos he wrote “snowflakes.” What’s clear from Morris’s film is that a lifetime of observing and participating in politics is not enough to avoid repeating the major quagmires of the past, or to prevent government from inhibiting itself. There are startling examples throughout the film which illustrate this, including statements from Rumsfeld in the 1980s urging for the United States to avoid the swamp that is the Middle East. Additionally, Rumsfield himself challenges Morris (and anti-Rumsfeld audience members) to answer why President Obama essentially continued with Bush-era policies if they were so repugnant.

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The filmmaker doesn’t really have a response for this (something that Rumsfeld probably chalked up as a win), yet he doesn’t really need one. Because what Rumsfeld says about Obama proves to be the film’s main thesis. Our lawmakers, the ones sending us into war after war, are unwilling or incapable of looking back. They refuse to turn known unknowns into known knowns. Or, perhaps there is no such thing as a certainty when it comes to something as complex as war, and thus one must tread all the more lightly due to the prevalence of so many unknown knowns. This notion is conveyed beautifully in one of the film’s shots of Rumsfeld. It depicts the man in front of a mirror. Behind him is the reflection of the back of his head, and beyond that the image of his face once more (this time blurry and unformed).

This shot draws a beautiful contrast between the man at the heart of The Unknown Known and the one in The Fog of War. In that earlier film, a tearful Robert MacNamera seemed willing to at least attempt to draw conclusions from past experience, and offer advice on how to move forward. He was willing to, “return to where we started and know the place for the first time.” For Rumsfeld, however, this is out of the question. He’s unwilling to even turn his head.

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