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Review: The Unknown Known (2014)

The Unknown Known (2014)

Directed by: Errol Morris

Premise: A documentary in which Donald Rumsfeld reflects his career. The bulk of the film focuses on his tenure as Secretary of Defense during the George W. Bush administration.  

What Works: In 2003, Errol Morris released The Fog of War, a documentary about Robert McNamara, who had served as Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and who is generally considered to be among the chief architects of the Vietnam War. That picture primarily consisted of McNamara, who was eighty-seven years old at the time and thirty-five years past his time in the White House, facing into the camera and commenting on his life and the lessons he had learned from his experiences. The Unknown Known is very much a companion piece to The Fog of War. This new film presents another controversial Secretary of Defense facing into a camera and reflecting on his life and the decisions made in wartime and The Unknown Known shares some of the same strengths as the 2003 film. Like The Fog of War, The Unknown Known juxtaposes Rumsfeld’s narration with visuals that comment on the ideas, spoken and unspoken, in his recollections. Some of that b-roll consists of stills and news footage but it also includes metaphorical imagery, much of which is beautifully photographed. Like its predecessor, The Unknown Known lets its subject speak and explain himself. This has been the modus operandi of Errol Morris’ work, which is to allow his interviewees to speak and eventually reveal themselves. In that respect, The Unknown Known is distinct from The Fog of War and is very much its inverse. In The Fog of War, Robert McNamara offered a master class in administration, warfare, and diplomacy and he was cognizant of his failures and of the failures of the establishment during the Vietnam era. In The Unknown Known, Donald Rumsfeld is less than a decade removed from his experience in the White House and American troops are still returning home from the wars that he oversaw. Perhaps due to the proximity of the events but also almost certainly due to Rumsfeld’s pride, he is unable to show the same insight into what he’s done or to take responsibility for his failures. That isn’t necessarily a fault of the picture. This is a movie trying to do two things. First, to explore who Donald Rumsfeld is and shed light on what motivated his decision-making. That leads to the secondary goal of the picture, which is to lay out the military decisions of the George W. Bush era and to critique the rationales and lasting impacts of those decisions. The Unknown Known succeeds mostly on its first count. The film has a great asset in Rumsfeld. Of all the major officials of the George W. Bush era he is by far the most watchable. Rumsfeld is a very witty and charming character and the filmmakers take advantage of his photogenic qualities. Yet, that wittiness and smoothness belies the ignorance and unaccountability that characterized Rumsfeld’s tenure and his smile, intended to reassure, comes across strangely disconnected from the record he defends, recalling what Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil.”

What Doesn’t: The Unknown Known is less successful in the filmmakers’ attempt to grasp the facts of the military debacles of the George W. Bush years. Part of this is due to Rumsfeld’s own obfuscation. As the title suggests, the former Defense Secretary speaks in elaborate syllogisms that suggest profundity but are mostly nonsense. Rumsfeld’s ability to use language to befuddle is legendary and he puts it to full effect here. This becomes apparent in some of the exchanges between Rumsfeld and Errol Morris; although the director is off-screen the irritation in his voice is unmistakable. The display of Donald Rumsfeld’s backward logic does underscore his lack of consciousness but it does not help the audience understand the historical facts of what happened during the George W. Bush years and viewers who are not intimately familiar with the details of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may be lost in the film. This picture actually reveals very little about those conflicts and for viewers who were critical of the George W. Bush administration most of what the film does is confirm longstanding beliefs about Rumsfeld and about the efficacy of the wars.

Bottom Line: The Unknown Known would make a great entry in a film series about the post-9/11 era and it complements Errol Morris’ 2008 documentary Standard Operating Procedure, but on its own the picture does not shed much new light on the wars, the George W. Bush administration, or even on Donald Rumsfeld. Like most of Morris’ work it is thought provoking and well-made and the picture certainly merits viewing, especially as we wrestle with the legacy of the George W. Bush administration. In the end, it may be what is unacknowledged by Rumsfeld and even by the filmmakers that is most revealing.

Episode: #490 (May 11, 2014)