The Unknown Known
Review by Mark Schwab
“Those who made the decisions with imperfect knowledge will be judged in hindsight by those with considerably more information at their disposal and time for reflection.” ― Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir
Such a convenient rationalization for someone who was in a key position of military power in this country. That quote - an excuse if you ask me - sums up a lot of the attitude put forth by the subject of this new Errol Morris offering.
Morris, one of the great documentary filmmakers of our time, probably thought he had another Fog of War - style film ready to send out into the moviesphere when he got former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to face his camera and go on the record. But unlike the searing and absorbing Fog of War (which had JFK's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara actually showing a soul and genuine reflection for the damage he wrought through the Vietnam war) all Morris can wrangle out of Rumsfeld is a smirkng and dismissive artful dodger who has trouble hiding his contempt for the uninformed public who believe that with war comes responsibility and accountability.
The first 20 minutes of Rumsfeld's shucking and jiving are almost charming. He dismisses Morris' pointed querries with a grin, coming off like a guy who thinks this is all just a lark. But with each passing minute it becomes clear that this guy is giving a carefully orchestrated perfromance. By the end of hour one, I will admit to watching in facination as this (arguably) potential war criminal never answered any of the valid questions posed to him. Remember all of the conservative critisisms of Bill Clinton's "It depends on what the meaning of the words 'is' is." answer under oath? Imagine 96 minutes of that. Unfortunately, Morris lets it all slide like oil off an East Baghdad field and it's off to the next cleverly edited map graphic. Did Morris chicken out? Why no follow ups?
If you're an Errol Morris fan (like me), you'll get the quality filmmaking he is known for; fluid camerawork, strong compositions, the Phillip Glass-style score (by Danny Elfman this time), word definitions flashed across the screen. It's all here and it's all expertly done. But at the same time, this still feels like Morris got schooled by a deft political animal. An animal who just taught every future potential war criminal exactly how to "handle" being the subject of a great documentary filmmaker.