Distributor: Anchor Bay
Release Date: July 01, 2014
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Movie: B+ / Video: B+ / Audio: B / Extras: B-
I first saw The Unknown Known at a press screening in Toronto, just before TIFF started last September. Surrounded by Canadian critics (I think I was the only American in attendance), I was treated to the opportunity to listen to the architect of the Iraq War justify himself before a non-American audience. Some of his more brazen denials and revisions, like his flimsy assertion that “We [the United States] don’t assassinate the leaders of other countries,” were met with a kind of mirthless laughter, not the rage or lingering faith that a US crowd might have had. It was vaguely disorienting to experience the film this way, among those who shared my estimation of the Iraq War, but from a different perspective: outraged, to be sure (as Tom Green viciously reminded flippant Fox News host Greg Gutfield, Canadians lost lives in Iraq, too), but at least partially removed from any personal investment in Rumsfeld’s lies.
Now, as I see the film again back home, Iraq teeters on what may be the disastrous closing act of the civil war ignited by the invasion. Instead of the shared sense of absurdism that contextualized my first viewing, I now approach it amid a renewed fury that has greeted Iraq’s possible collapse. It comes both from liberals who see it as the inevitable consequence of a misguided campaign, and from conservatives who view it as proof that we never should have left. And if Rumsfeld’s dodges and bald-faced lies were so outlandish back in September that you couldn’t help but laugh, recent news offers a reminder of the stakes of those shameless distortions.
Errol Morris structures his interview by asking some cursory questions about Iraq, doubling back to cover Rumsfeld’s long political career before arriving at the era that will define his legacy. This slightly jumbled chronology shrewdly permits Morris to better contrast Rumsfeld’s political ambition with his last days in power. Almost immediately, for example, we learn of Rumsfeld’s habit of taking everything down in dictation, sending curt memos his staff dubbed “snowflakes,” which allows the viewer to savor the irony when he recounts working for the Nixon administration and displays a clear distaste for Nixon’s habit of over-documentation and recording. More to the point, Rumsfeld’s singular way with words book-ends the naked survivalism of his career advancement. Getting to hear his tongue-twisting ideas at the start of the film makes it easier to spot his innate political potential. Returning to the subject of Iraq after running through his life reveals that his seemingly bumbling press appearances, his clumsy turns of phrase and his asinine combatitiveness with reporters, is not the behavior of an unqualified idiot but a strategy that’s been carefully sculpted over a lifetime of maneuvering.
It is Rumsfeld’s use of language that propels the interview. His pedantic obsession over the dictionary definition of terms is matched by dictionary excerpts flashing on-screen in the space around his head. The flurry of memos accrued over decades speaks to the man’s contradictory impulses toward blunt, direct speech and an avalanche of double-talk. (It’s also a giveaway of his ambition, recording his every thought for historical posterity.) Rumsfeld’s greatest lingual feat is the one that gives the film its title, his breakdown of “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown knowns.” His original speech on this subject seems like a bizarre contest Rumsfeld waged with himself to speak as long as he could with as few unique words as possible. His point is logically sound, but it manages to make simplicity confounding, scuttling any blowback by making those listening work over the sentence to make sure they even understand it.
Rumsfeld employs the same tactics to constantly divert the film. He objects to the phrasing of certain questions, rewording them to be more favorable to his way of thinking, and then not answering them anyway. Where Morris’ The Fog of War broke through Robert McNamara’s defenses and induced a kind of admission of guilt, Rumsfeld never lets his guard down, even though he is at face value far more gregarious and warm than McNamara ever was. As Morris himself has attested, it is possible to know less about Iraq and why we went there after watching The Unknown Known than you did going in.
As such, it’s easy to be disappointed with the film, to find it a failure to hold Rumsfeld accountable. In truth, however, seeing the perpetual deflection that is apparently his default state of being is condemnation of a kind. Morris’ film makes it abundantly clear that it is precisely because of Rumsfeld that we will never truly get an answer as to why we went to Iraq, not only because of the man’s willful obfuscation but also his own self-delusion. Throughout the film, he flashes a thin-lipped smile, often when relaying information that should not engender mirth, revealing a total disconnect from the flurry of words he spouts and how even he processes what he says. For once, we are not invited to pity a reviled public figure, and instead Morris’ frustrations with Rumsfeld’s run-around set the tone. The director ends the film by losing composure and asking the former secretary why he agreed to do the movie, but as much as Rumsfeld and Morris himself might want for an answer to that question, seeing the man perpetuate vague justifications an unending sense of the cause’s righteousness says everything about how we are still dealing with this mess.
Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray present a dependable transfer. Split between archival materials, interview footage, and an occasional visual diversion like ocean waves (a representation of the white noise played in secure phone booths), the film’s video does not really need to stand out, but everything has fine detail, and the Charlie Rose-esque black background behind Rumsfeld never suffers from crush. The audio is similarly solid, with a 5.1 track that won’t test your speakers as its primary workout comes in the form of Danny Elfman’s gently melancholic score.
An audio commentary with Morris is filled with pauses but nonetheless finds him in feisty form, still smarting over how little he could extract from his subject’s endless layers of self-protection. He rightfully pushes back against claims that the film does not challenge Rumsfeld’s claims, but the best parts concern his lingering fascination at how hard Rumsfeld is to pin down, as well as his scoffing over some of the secretary’s most brazen claims. “A Conversation with Errol Morris” is a brief intro for the film, giving a rundown of how the project got started and how difficult Morris found Rumsfeld, and a digital reproduction of his four-part op-ed in The New York Times about Rumsfeld also appears. Finally, a complete taping of a 1989 meeting of former secretaries of defense for a public roundtable, clips of which appear in the film, is included.
Errol Morris’ unfortunately timely confrontation with Donald Rumsfeld is vexing and compelling, and Anchor Bay put together a solid Blu-Ray release.