Review: The Unknown Known

The Unknown Known

Trailer

Why is this man smiling? Errol Morris tries to answer that question.

Why is this man smiling? Errol Morris tries to answer that question.

Errol Morris’ The Fog Of War is a great investigative documentary, the kind that offers a new or unique perspective on already known about events. It was lightning in a bottle, and deservedly won an Oscar with its unflinching examination of the beliefs and actions of Robert McNamera. In his latest documentary effort, Morris attempts to recapture the feel and effect of The Fog Of War, but with a very different subject.

In my college years, I first read Tom Ricks’ brilliant Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq. It outlines, in excruciating detail, the litany of mistakes, failures of intelligence, and general incompetence that lead up to the Iraq War. I was struck by how much Ricks didn’t ever actually have to say, usually just leaving the figures involved to speak for themselves, with widescale quoting of the public record to demonstrate, simply and effectively, the tidal wave of irrational and flawed thinking that permeated the Bush administration at the time. At the heart of all of that, one of the lynchpins in the disaster that was the decision to attack Iraq, was one Donald Henry Rumsfeld.

Donald Rumsfeld is a two time US Secretary of Defence, intimately involved in the decisions to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq under the Presidency of George W. Bush. Using his many memos – dubbed “snowflakes” by the people who had to deal with the sheer volume of them– as a focus point, Morris questions Rumsfeld on numerous topics: his role under three administrations, the War on Terror, torture as an interrogation technique and what justifications he can offer for some of the most unsavoury parts of his political career.

Whereas The Fog Of War was more of a lecture delivered by the main focus, comprised of various lessons, The Unknown Known is more like an exercise in dodging and wriggling: Morris puts Rumsfeld under the spotlight and tries to get him to open up about the more noted aspects of his life and career, and Rumsfeld does everything that he can to avoid the point of the entire exercise. To an extent, this makes The Unknown Known a very unsatisfying experience, one that you might well question the worth of.

Those who seek out this film in a bid to get new insights into the Iraq War or the declarations on torture will be left disappointed, as the interviewee spends the better part of two hours refusing to allow anything but the most superficial glimpse into the most infamous things associated with him, towing the party line consistently. You don’t really get a feel for Rumsfeld’s motivations at any point and you can almost feel the frustration of the filmmaker by the time we head towards the conclusion.

What you do get is a lesson in self justification, delusion and a certain banality of evil. Rumsfeld seems to revel in creating confusion and fog around his actions – the very title of this piece comes from one of his most obtuse lectures on the shaky nature of intelligence, essentially saying that sometimes you don’t have as much of a grasp on a topic as you think you have – and almost encourages the practise of imagining the way things might be over contemplating hard fact.

Rumsfeld seems more willing to talk about things far in the past than anything in the last years of his career. His service under Nixon and Ford provides some interesting anecdotes but nothing of real substance: while it is interesting to hear about Nixon’s readiness to sack Rumsfeld when he was getting too politically popular, it doesn’t really seem to add anything to the matter at hand, other than to make the audience understand the potentially poisonous political atmosphere of the White House. Even when talking about his wife, Rumsfeld is cagey, admitting only that he didn’t really want to get married when he did, only doing so because he didn’t want his wife to marry anyone else. Such thinking – taking risks in the hope that everything will turn out alright – permeates much of what else The Unknown Known discusses.

The tracking of Rumsfeld’s career is quick, with the focus never getting into the true nitty gritty of various appointments, offering the most bland kind of summations, such as his faux intellectual description of Middle Eastern politics as a swamp, or briefly confirming he wasn’t too far away from being a President of the United States in the 1980s, something he doesn’t seem unduly regretful over.

Rumsfeld is more than happy to talk about his past, but not so much on the present.

Rumsfeld is more than happy to talk about his past, but not so much on the present.

That last is an odd little outlying point to bring up, something that again doesn’t really add anything to the matter at hand, and I suspect was included just to make a good trailer moment. Essentially, Rumsfeld could have been Ronald Reagan’s VP pick when he got elected, and from there he could probably have taken the place of George H. W. Bush in history. There are no recriminations, no anger, just a fleeting consideration on Rumsfeld’s face as he, (probably) imagines what might have been. But this is a guy who has made an enormous habit over not spending too much time dwelling on the past, so I suppose I should not be surprised.

When it comes to the last 15 or so years, we see a picture painted of a man who was delighted with practical celebrity, one of the main architects of post 9/11 America, who saw that act as his generations Pearl Harbour, and as a chance to make the United States the main player on the international stage – as if its position as such was threatened before the planes crashed into the WTC – once more. An evocative section outlines Rumsfeld’s opinions on the fall of Saigon, and how the reputation of the United States as the world’s great power preoccupied much of his thinking. Perhaps his time would have been better spent thinking more about the correct use of that power.

But even Morris’ calculated use of archive footage to undermine Rumsfeld’s own defences isn’t enough to get any great revelations or introspection from the man, who is quick with the deflecting quip or distracting aside. There are moments in watching The Unknown Known when you almost feel like you’re playing L.A. Noire, and what to start mashing the “Lie” button repeatedly. I suppose the film has some worth is being that 90+ minute reel of what a person looks like when they don’t really want to talk about a certain topic, not really, and put the fullest amount of their energy into making sure nothing of substance is really said.

Rumsfeld claims assassination of political leaders is immoral and wrong, then quickly dismisses the Dora Farms strike as an acceptable “act of war” – another that came down to bad intelligence. He insists the American people knew full well that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the 9/11 attacks, and then dismisses poll evidence that suggests otherwise (and presumably ignores his own remarks, as Secretary of Defence, on the topic back in 2002). He insists that prisoners should be treated well, and then does his utmost to excuse, deflect, distract and dodge when it comes to his own role in the stripping of Geneva Convention rights from prisoners, the escalating use of physical tactics in “interrogations” and the continued existence of places like Camp X-Ray. Always and ever, there is a recognisable and frustrating use of weasel words and a firm refusal to accept the fullest amount of responsibility.

And then, on the biggest topic of all, The Unknown Known is, in my eyes, a failure of investigation. When it comes to why America invaded Iraq at all, Rumsfeld is brief and as deflecting as ever, pointing to the intelligence he had and rehashing the same old soundbytes that he has for the last 15 years. Depictions of the failure in Tora Bora, the disintegration of order in Iraq (remember that “democracy is messy” line?) and the rise of insurgencies the US unexpectedly had to fight all flash by very fast, with Morris preferring to spend time on the threats of resignation Rumsfeld used when he turned unpopular, and the eventual carrying out of that eventuality, though there isn’t too much on the mass accusations of incompetence Rumsfeld was targeted with by high ranking military officers. It’s easy to imagine Rumsfeld lack of opening up being the reason, the former Secretary of Defence refusing to contemplate for too long even meetings with injured soldiers.

At no point in The Unknown Known does Donald Rumsfeld satisfactorily answer the key question on Iraq: Why were we there? Perhaps I might criticise Morris for failing to nail him as hard as he could on particular point, but I suppose that might be a bit unfair: when the subject is so unwilling to actually talk, asking questions becomes a chore. Rumsfeld sticks to the established line, of faulty intelligence and “unknown knowns”, and never gives much of a hint that he feels, any real way, responsible for much of what happened in the Spring of 2003.

The Unknown Known matches Morris’ established visual style. Rumsfeld is placed dead centre, the camera staring straight into his face, as if the director wants us to have the best seat possible to stare into the focus’ soul. Such an approach has its advantages, allowing us to really get an understanding of what the human face goes through as it ponders another round of question dodging. Mixed in with that is Morris’ continued use of archival footage, Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes”, metaphorical imagery and time-lapse photography. Some is subtle and effective, some is blunt and forceful, and there is a definite sense that Morris is simply reusing many of the things he used in The Fog of War. You might also guess that Morris is a bit of a House of Cards fan, loving the repeated shots of a time-lapsed Washington D.C mixed in with Danny Elfman’s choir-backed score. Echoing strains of his work in gothic productions like Sleep Hollow or the Batman series (especially Batman Returns), Elfman’s score is haunting and ominous, maybe a little too much, considering this was a documentary, not a horror film.

Some of Rumsfeld’s parting words, when asked why he is even bothering to partake in Morris’ documentary, are essentially that he doesn’t know himself, a moment equalled by one that preceded it as Rumsfeld struggles to even understand some of his own statements read back to him. Those moments sort of sum up the underwhelming nature of film, which is ultimately a bit of a disappointment, lacking a central point or pivotal moment in the inspection of Donald Rumsfeld. I came out of it with a better feel for the kind of person that Rumsfeld is (“snake-like” springs to mind, but without much extra knowledge of his career and the decisions that defined it. I feel as if Morris was unable to get the kind of answers that would satisfy, and was left trying to pull together enough of a basic glimpse of this man to fill the running time.

You could compare The Unknown Known to The Armstrong Lie, since they both cover a single subject in detail, a subject perceived rather negatively for their past actions. But I certainly preferred The Armstrong Lie more, maybe because Alex Gibney made a tighter production, with his narrative and personal history of changing perception of Lance Armstrong making things a bit more focused and intriguing, not to mention a greater amount of digging into the psyche and motivations of the titular cyclist. I feel as if this did not occur to anywhere near the same extent with Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known, where the titular politician was given to much of a grand stage to dominate proceedings.

There are no apologies, no admittance of wrongdoing and no kind of journey for Rumsfeld to go on. There is just him wriggling out of any accusation and them smiling and laughing about it, with a leering grin this is as unsettling as it is, when you think about the responsibility that Rumsfeld had in the run-up to the catastrophe that was Iraq, reprehensible (the films very tagline is “Why is this man smiling?”). For all those reasons, I cannot really bring myself to recommend The Unknown Known, a film that may only infuriate when it doesn’t just simply fail to land.

Somewhat underwhelming.

Somewhat underwhelming.

(All images are copyright of RADiUS-TWC, I Wonder Pictures, NFP Marketing and Distribution and VPRO).

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