The Unknown Known (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Unknown Known (2014)

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Erroll Morris, chronicler of the weird and incendiary, interviews another former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, in The Unknown Known.

Do what he says or the country gets itI still hope for the day that film plays the same role in politics that it did during the Cuban or Russian Revolutions.  Sure, there are studies floating around that link certain voting behaviors with films (watching As Good As It Gets makes people care more about national healthcare, for example), but I want the kind of film that gets people roaring in their seats and out into the streets.  For those filmmakers I think have this potential the cool, humorous style of Errol Morris was not on the top of my list.  On the basis of The Unknown Known, it remains unlikely that he ever will be.

The Unknown Known is a spiritual sequel to Morris' amazing 2003 documentary The Fog of War.  Both films deal with the rise, work, and eventual decline of two very different Secretaries of Defense as a response to the boondoggles that arose during their time in power with a title based on one of their most well known expressions.  For The Fog of War that was the Vietnam war and Robert McNamara, and for The Unknown Known it is the second Iraq war and Donald Rumsfeld.  My choice to describe both as, "boondoggles," would likely elicit different reactions from the two men - possibly anger and disrespect from McNamara but from Rumsfeld I imagine that clouding the moral ground with loose verbage would go with at least a slick smile, if not outright approval.

Morris tries to make good cinematic use of the long string of memos Rumsfeld left behind, but can only put text on the screen in so many ways.

Morris tries to make good cinematic use of the long string of memos Rumsfeld left behind, but can only put text on the screen in so many ways.

I can arrive at that conclusion from the portrait that The Unknown Known presents of Rumsfeld, and the most fascinating aspect of the film is how Rumsfeld knows exactly why he's there and tries to manipulate the framing to his advantage.  More than any of his other films, The Unknown Known is a sparring match between Morris and Rumsfeld and the former tries to get the latter to define some of his accomplishments and failures.  We hear more from Morris than we have from any of his other documentaries, asking questions or Rumsfeld and sometimes defending his line of questioning when Rumsfeld posits, correctly, that he's being lured into a trap.  As the film goes on we can hear Morris getting frustrated at times and Rumsfeld smiling that devilish grin of his as he avoids answers and defines everything to his advantage.

Verbal sparring is interesting, and I like when semantics are being broken down to such a degree that we are constantly questioning what is right definition for each word in a certain situation.  But Morris committed a big mistake with his approach to The Unknown Known, and that was coming into the film trying to get a "gotcha" moment of the notoriously slippery Rumsfeld.  Many of the scenes end up the same way, with Rumsfeld explaining his thought process and reasoning until he comes to something that directly contradicts a position he took years earlier.  Morris presents this with, at times, relish in his voice and the unflappable Rumsfeld either redefines what he said before or goes "on the record" with what he is saying now is correct and previously he must have been transcribed incorrectly.

This gets boring fast, adds no fresh dimensions to whatever you may perceive Rumsfeld as, and is filmed with the same mix of stock footage, voice-overs, and media through media with few twists - like when we watch Rumsfeld debate on a separate television monitor through the lens of the camera.  I've always enjoyed how Morris used this in previous films to build a sense of how the participants in his films view themselves.  But Rumsfeld was already a child of television as his now historic press conferences confirm, and the thousands of memos he left provide no insight into the man who is willing to redefine them as he goes along.    Morris usual eclectic mix of styles keeps the film from getting visually stagnant at the cost of providing no insight into the man behind the manipulation.

There's ample footage of Rumsfeld appearing on television which isn't restructured into a new take on the man - just another in front of the TV.

There's ample footage of Rumsfeld appearing on television but isn't restructured into a new take on the man.  It's just another layer of his performance for Morris and for the American public.

In Rumsfeld, Morris finally met his match, and already runs at a disadvantage since his 2008 film Standard Operating Procedure covered much of the damning ground already.  His films always concern themselves with people who have competing visions of the truth, and whoever is able to frame their version of events the most enticingly "wins", be it to their betterment or not.  This is what made Joyce McKinney, the Mormon-kidnapping beauty queen of his last film Tabloid, such a perfect fit.  McKinney and Rumsfeld both flourish under the camera, but the former aims to please the lens while the latter seeks to bend its perception to his advantage.  Other subjects can be caught in their lies, but Rumsfeld is always on-guard, ready to turn the cold gaze of the camera into a labyrinth of words and sly grins - maybe worth a chuckle at the first pass, but quick to grate in the repetitions that follow.

I say this with no love for Rumsfeld, but Morris approached Rumsfeld on his field and lost.  The poster and trailers for the film ask, "Why is this man smiling?"  The closest answer we can come to is this is his game, he knew the moves long before the Interrotron started rolling, and that manipulation keeps the spark from ever igniting against him.

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Tail - The Unknown KnownThe Unknown Known (2014)

Directed by Errol Morris.

Posted by Andrew

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