Film Review: “The Unknown Known” — As Insanely Entertaining as a Mad Hatter Tea Party.
My first thought: filming Donald Rumsfeld can only be rationalized if it’s a front for a citizen’s arrest.
By Gerald Peary
It was about time that my friend, Errol Morris, got an Academy Award when, after half-a-dozen superb documentaries, he finally copped an Oscar for The Fog of War (2003). Still, as much as I admired that work, I have always felt that Morris got too cozy and chummy with one of America’s prime war criminals. A mass murderer with a preppy jacket and a human face. I’ll never forget seeing The Fog of War at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, with McNamara present. Rather than booing him, rather than walking out enraged when he spoke, the large audience of mostly wealthy liberals seemed honored to be in his presence. The fact that, in The Fog of War, McNamara sounds vaguely remorseful for the Vietnam War seemed enough for the gathered to forgive him. Oh, such a mannerly, well-spoken gentleman! I guess it was a white collar crime, his genocide of thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and duped American military. Otherwise, McNamara had a spotless record.
And now, a decade later, The Unknown Known, a documentary featuring yet another ignominious government figure, Donald Rumsfeld. The scourge of Iraq! Errol, are you out of your gourd? My first thought: this filming can only be rationalized if it’s a front for a citizen’s arrest. My imagined first day of principle shooting: as soon as Rumsfeld parks down in front of Morris’s patented camera rig, the Interretron, he is grabbed by the crew, thrust in a car trunk, and shipped off to the Hague. Or, more appropriate for him, exported to Guantanamo, where, awaiting a trial which will never come, he is alternately waterboarded (“Give us information about that terrorist, Dick Cheney’) and walked on a leash and fed dog food.
Well, none of that happened. Rumsfeld was granted a 103-minute platform in The Unknown Known to express his skewed views; and he took to documentary like a duck to H2O. George W’s infamous Secretary of Defense holds court!
The barrage of razzle-dazzle imagery surrounding Rumsfeld’s words will be familiar to those weaned on Morris’s oeuvre, perhaps a bit redundant. And Danny Elfman’s score sure sounds like a retread of Phllip Glass’s groundbreaking music for The Thin Blue Line (1988). Still, The Unknown Known is my favorite film of Errol’s in years, as insanely entertaining as a Mad Hatter tea party. It’s also damned informative, especially when we flash back to Rumsfeld’s early years, starting with him being elected to Congress as a Johnny Carson look-alike. Did you know that he learned his slippery trade as an advisor to Richard Nixon, before he ran afoul of Bob Haldeman? I forgot his first time around as Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford. I certainly didn’t recall that Reagan almost picked him as a running mate, meaning (shudder!) he would have been one step away from the presidency.
We see early on his friendship with a fellow young conservative, Dick Cheney. His pal forever, Darth Vader was the one who recommended Donald to be employed by Bush. So finally, in The Unknown Known there’s Iraq. And the (sic) “weapons of mass destruction”. Should we expect it any other way? Rumsfeld still contends they could have been there, secretly destroyed by Saddam Hussein.
When it comes to mixing it up with Rumsfeld, Morris departs from the strategy in his earlier movies. In his typical documentary, the filmmaker bites his tongue and bides his time, keeps his voice off the soundtrack while the person before the Interrotron talks on an on, concocting an elaborate web of self-delusion. Only at the very end does Errol cut through with one pointed socko question, shaking up the person being interviewed as he tries for a 15th round knockout. In The Unknown Known, Morris immediately comes out punching. And speaking. From first to last, he’s after Rumsfeld, challenging his brash interviewee, being properly skeptical of the ex-Secretary of Defense’s consummate BS. For instance: there’s Rumsfeld’s preposterous claim that the Bush administration never misled the American public to believe there was a connection between Al Qaeda, 9/11, and Saddam Hussein. The Unknown Known does what’s needed: cutting to a 1990s press conference where Rumsfeld, of course, made that very allegation.
On a couple of occasions, Rumsfeld freezes, seemingly caught in a flagrant lie. But most of the time, he wriggles out of difficulties, comes out smiling.
Smiling. And this is my confession. I can’t say I got to like Rumsfeld, that smarmy killer, but he certainly is mesmerizing in The Unknown Known. Unlike that somber pill, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld proves weirdly engaging to watch, though I still believe he should be buried in prison forever for his crimes against humanity.
And what a contrast to the anxious filmmaker, with Errol’s absorptions and obsessions. Rumsfeld looks like he sleeps beautifully at night, with no regrets and few second thoughts. He was a perfect fit for the equally unapologetic, shallow-thinking George W. Bush.
“Why did you agree to do this movie?” Errol asks him at the very end. “I don’t know,” Rumsfeld responds. But he does know: talking about his public life, even the horrors of Iraq, doesn’t spook him out at all. Instead, what great fun, holding forth about himself, bathed in the Interretron spotlight.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.