'The Unknown Known'
Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning ‘The Fog of War’, in which he grilled former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara about the mistakes of the Vietnam War, must be one of the least likely movies to ever get a sequel. Generally speaking, political documentaries don’t get the franchise treatment. Yet somehow, the ultimate eccentric chronicler of eccentrics has managed to do exactly that by giving Donald Rumsfeld a similar treatment in ‘The Unknown Known’.
Inevitably, the films are as different as their subjects. While McNamara came to Morris decades after Vietnam filled with emotion and remorse, Rumsfeld appears to still be in spin doctor mode. He offers the same evasion tactics and steely grin he did in countless press conferences for the Bush administration. Some might call that a disappointing ball-drop from Morris. Others will recognize that the filmmaker has once again let his subject drive his movie, and that this collection of half-truths and convoluted language defines who Rumsfeld is. Going for anything else would have been a fool’s errand.
Morris’ final result is just as fascinating as his previous film, yet simultaneously quite different. ‘The Unknown Known’ is less direct and more complex, offering even fewer easy answers. In a way, that’s not unlike the differences between the Vietnam and Iraq wars themselves. As awful as Vietnam was, at least it ended and blame was distributed. The murky waters of Iraq only get worse over time, and it should come as no surprise that Rumsfeld has not suddenly developed a new and clear take on his time working under Bush/Cheney.
Even though the politician nimbly dances around any acceptance of guilt or accusation made against his former employers like a pro (he won’t even admit that it was strange to attend a Bush-less meeting with Dick Cheney and the Saudi ambassador to discuss the Iraq war before invasion), the film is still intriguingly confessional. Rumsfeld’s barrage of jargon and softened truths eventually seem not just to be a game he plays professionally, but his honest point of view. Perhaps that was developed as a coping mechanism over time, but it becomes clear it’s what got him his job and kept his conscious clean.
As always, Errol Morris has Rumsfeld stare directly into the camera lens while speaking and intercuts stock footage, news reports and gorgeously constructed montages backed by a pulsing Danny Elfman score that’s more than a little reminiscent of the one Philip Glass wrote last time. ‘The Fog of War’ and ‘The Unknown Known’ are so similar in so many ways that it’s impossible not to compare them against one another, and that’s probably deliberate. They echo and comment on each other in a way that casts America’s most recent mass tragedy of a war in as confusingly opaque of a light as Rumsfeld’s own point of view. That makes Morris’ doc an absolutely fascinating, if deliberately frustrating, watch.
The film forces audiences to leave the theater in a cloud of confusion and frustration that demands discussion. Clearly, Morris knew what he was doing. He’s once again crafted a single interview into a beautifully cinematic and intellectually rich experience. Morris is one of the few filmmakers alive who can genuinely claim to work in a style and genre that he created himself. ‘The Unknown Known’ might not be the director’s greatest achievement, but it’s the latest fascinating chapter in the career of one of the most singular filmmakers of all time.
Wow, I hadn’t even heard about this movie until now. I loved “The Fog of War” even though Vietnam ended a decade before I was even born. I’m intrigued to see that Danny Elfman did the score…I’ll be checking this one out for sure.