*** out of ****
Errol Morris’ new documentary, The Unknown Known is about questions that deserve answers and a subject who has a talent for temporarily convincing people he is providing those answers. The grin of Donald Rumsfeld dominates the screen in a movie, which continues Morris’ influential methods of putting the audience in a room with a person, whether we like them or not.
This is easily a companion piece to his 2003 film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, in which he interviewed another former Secretary of Defense about his experience with the Vietnam War as well as his early days in statistical bombing analysis during the World War II.
In this film, Rumsfeld doesn’t have the same amount of reflection time between himself and Iraq as McNamara did with Vietnam. His reflections of involvement in the Nixon and Ford administrations and the last years of the Vietnam War are very telling of his character. He’s a salesman.
As I said, Morris makes documentaries that force us to confront our perception of a person and experience what it’s like to sit down with them. He is credited with inventing a method of documentary filmmaking, which forces the interviewee to look in the direction of the camera lens. Morris’ face is fed to a small monitor below the lens as his loud voice from the back of the studio asks the most natural questions that his subject could inspire. The final effect is of a person looking directly at the audience, answering questions that Morris is asking in our place.
The frustration to be found in the film is in Rumsfeld’s undeniably big contradictions. Some of these contradictions are to statements he’s made in the past and some are within the interview itself. Discussions of Iraq, from the choice to go in to the treatment of prisoners of war, are given a good amount of attention. Rumsfeld justifies a lot of his decisions with an intelligence philosophy that inspires the title of the movie.
I am grateful for his willing participation in this project. His public personality is forever captured in this nearly two-hour movie. Without satisfying answers or definitive judgments we get an old man with a long career behind him, who dealt with difficult times. It is his account of those times that leaves us scratching our heads.
Morris has made some of the most involving interview-based documentaries I’ve seen. More than any of the theatrical releases, I would recommend checking out the television series he did in 2000, called First Person, which had a similar essence to the radio series, This American Life.
Morris dedicated The Unknown Known to Roger Ebert who encouraged this filmmaker and championed his work more than any other critic.