Judge Gordon Sullivan refuses to pass judgement on the grounds that it make incriminate him.
Why is this man smiling?
I have never been involved in planning the invasion of a country, nor have I ever used enhanced interrogation techniques. I haven't committed any major felonies, let alone shot a cop. And yet, there's very little on this earth that could persuade me to be interviewed by Errol Morris. The man has a talent for letting people speak just long enough so that they say both the thing he wants them to say and the thing they didn't want to say. Back in 1989, Morris' subjects could be forgiven for not knowing what they were getting into with The Thin Blue Line. In the 21st century, though, films like The Fog of War (which won an Academy Award) and Standard Operating Procedure have made it clear that Morris goes after big targets and rarely misses his mark. This tells us a lot about the people—like Donald Rumsfeld, subject of The Unknown Known—who now agree to sit for Morris' interrogation. The choices are ignorance (hard to credit given Morris' fame), arrogance (hoping to outsmart the man), or true belief (which is weird coming from a politician). Over this film's 90 minutes, we learn that Rumsfeld falls into a combination of the latter two camps. Though diehard critics of the invasion of Iraq would prefer an even more hard-hitting approach, The Unknown Known provides a fascinating view of the last 50 years of American politics.
Facts of the Case
Errol Morris pulls out his standard bag of tricks for The Unknown Known. That means most of the movie is comprised of interviews with Donald Rumsfeld, coupled with different kinds of archival images and "reenactments" or recreations. A couple of things set The Unknown Known apart, though. One of them is the fact that Rumsfeld produced a prodigious number of memos during his several decades in government (which started with his election to Congress and then continued in various executive roles until he stepped down as Secretary of Defense in 2006). In addition to questions, Morris has Rumsfeld read from some of these memos, and the contrast is often damning.
Those familiar with either Errol Morris' documentaries or Donald Rumsfeld's dubious history will have a pretty good idea where The Unknown Known is going: Morris will eventually lead Rumsfeld along a path towards inevitably contradicting himself or revealing some nefarious intent. Viewers with this kind of foreknowledge will not be disappointed. We definitely get to see the Rumsfeld that wasn't revealed during his time in the Bush administration. What Morris also reveals, however, is just how empty it is behind the bluster of the man who orchestrated the "shock and awe" of the Iraq invasion of 2003.
Rumsfeld's emptiness is revealed in two ways. The first is his harping on the concept of "imagination," and its failures. Rumsfeld's basic point is that all of his problems stem from a failure to have the ability to imagine some contingency, with 9/11 as the primary example. According to Rumsfeld's logic, 9/11 happened because we failed to imagine what terrorists would do to attack America, and never mind the intelligence that suggested pilot training for terror suspects, etc. Rumsfeld's other tactic is to quibble over language. Many of his memos are obsessed with defining words and twisting those definitions to suit his situation. There are also several moments where Rumsfeld takes one of Morris' questions and reframes it, trying to make himself look good in the process. The ultimate effect is that language, in Rumsfeld's usage, loses all meaning and it becomes easy to see how he could justify all of his actions within such a framework.
Luckily, even if you know the inevitable destination (Rumsfeld is a creep who unnecessarily orchestrated a number of disasters) Morris makes the trip of The Unknown Known worthwhile. Of course there's the pleasure of seeing Rumsfeld unravel at points, but that's expected. Also expected are the various re-enactments/re-creations that Morris uses. This time out they're less concrete, though. Rather than recreating specific moments (like the infamous scenes in The Thin Blue Line), Morris uses more metaphorical images, like "snowflakes," after the nickname for the flurry of Rumsfeld memos. The main reason for the more metaphorical images is because Morris has a wealth of archival material to draw from. Rumsfeld's time in the Pentagon/White House is well documented with plenty of images, and his inside-track on Republican politics ensures that he got lots of media coverage throughout his career. This material leads to unexpected pleasures, like archival audio of a pundit asking if Rumsfeld's ties to big business will hurt his chances of being tapped as Reagan's running mate. The irony there is thick, especially since Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld assistant in those years, went on to have even stronger ties to big business and was tapped for VP.
The 2.40:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer does a fine job with the largely-digital source material. Detail is fine throughout, with colors appropriately saturated as well. Black levels stay consistent and deep, and compression artifacts aren't really a problem. The DTS-HD 5.1 track keeps Rumsfeld and Morris clean and clear in the front channel. The highlight of the film is Danny Elfman's score, which gets spread throughout the sound field with solid clarity and dynamic range. The English SDH subtitles refer to it as "haunting choral music," and that's a pretty good description.
Extras start with a commentary from Morris. His true feelings about Rumsfeld come out here, and the gloves are off. There's a bit too much silence to make it a consistently engaging track, but it's nice to hear Morris' opinion. Morris shows up again for an eight minute featurette and discusses even more about the logistics of the film. An odd, though interesting, inclusion is the "Third Report of the Secretaries of Defense," features five Secretaries of Defense (including Rumsfeld) discussing the state of American defense in 1989. Finally, we get the text of an op-ed by Morris where he goes deeper into his feelings about Rumsfeld's character.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some people, especially those who already realize just how terrible Donald Rumsfeld is as a politician, might find The Unknown Known a bit tedious. Certainly, given Morris' interest in U.S. foreign policy, the invasion of Iraq, and the attendant disaster like Abu Ghriab, Rumsfeld seems like low-hanging fruit. Revealing that he is in fact not a mustache-twirling monster but just a smiling, avuncular politician—albeit a particularly misguided one—isn't terribly satisfying.
The Unknown Known sheds some interesting light on the invasion of Iraq and Donald Rumsfeld's half a century in American politics. Though not as shocking or revealing as Errol Morris' other documentaries, this one will likely appeal to anyone interested in a new take on American politics.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
Review content copyright © 2014 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.