Rob Harmon’s Picks 7/1/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe Unknown Known (dir. Errol Morris, 2013)

Since the subject of Errol Morris’s latest film-ic conversation THE UNKNOWN KNOWN is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it is fitting that the title of said film derives from a famously obscure bit of Rumsfeld political double-talk. In Rumsfeld’s own words—both when he first uttered the lines at a 2002 press conference while serving in the George W. Bush administration and in the studio with Morris reciting from the original memo—he explains that there are four categories of knowledge: known knowns (things we know and that we know we know), known unknowns (things that we know we do not know), unknown unknowns (things which we do not know and which we do not know that we do not know), and, finally, unknown knowns, things that we thought we knew but it turned out we knew less than we thought… or more… depending on which Donald Rumsfeld is speaking!

Confused? You should be. Welcome to the elusive world of political gamesmanship, a world in which a neoconservative lion like Rumsfeld feels eminently at home. In fact, of all the many archival clips of Rumsfeld in the film, (his career begins in Congress in 1962 and extends through various positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations) he seems most at ease between 2001 and 2006, the years in which he served as Secretary of Defense during some of the most difficult and controversial military deployments of our modern era. In these segments Rumsfeld seems to take to his “War on Terror” press conferences like a fish to water, bending truths like a strong man at a carnival bending metal into odd shapes. Like the oxymoron of the title, Rumsfeld’s words oftentimes seem like a form of meta-nonsense, providing the Washington press corps and the American public with some of its more surreal moments in recent memory.

Morris’s style in The Unknown Known will be familiar to those who know his movies. Rumsfeld sits in studio and speaks to Morris’s live video image in a teleprompter screen which covers the camera lens, creating the strange effect that the interviewee is sitting before the audience and speaking directly to them.

The ability to put subjects at ease before the camera is a Morris specialty, as are his use of hypnotic re-enactments (many of which call into question or undermine what the subject is saying, and, at times, even the nature of “truth” itself!), archival footage, and visuals which are skillfully edited and intercut, and the use of mesmerizing music (Danny Elfman being the composer in this case) to settle the viewer into a sort of trance-like state more receptive to the film’s occasionally-omnipotent viewpoint.

The Unknown Known may not be Morris at his strongest or his best, perhaps because Rumsfeld himself is such a frustratingly difficult personality, or perhaps because the career of this Machiavellian kingmaker is still too recent and too shadowy for the proper perspective. But it is a fascinating sparring match nonetheless and worthy of seeing, if only to marvel again at “”Rummy” in his element, greying temples and fixed, vague smile, cheerfully deflecting and volleying questions around the room like a tennis champ, his endless stream of words metaphorically piling up like drops of water in the ocean (an ocean which he invariably does not drown in, it should be noted).

It is also a joy to hear the tone in Morris’ implicitly moral, interrogating voice when—obviously puzzled at why Rumsfeld would agree to sit down with him in the first place—he bluntly asks with part exasperation, part amusement, “Why are you doing this? Why are you talking to me?”

Hmmm, good question. Perhaps Rumsfeld remembers that in 2003—the year in which the Bush administration invaded Iraq—Americans were finding solace in THE FOG OF WAR, another Morris film about another former Secretary of Defense named Robert McNamara who had a few things to say about lessons learned from the Vietnam War? Or, perhaps he is worried about his legacy?

If you are interested in the work of one of America’s foremost documentary filmmakers check out our Errol Morris section at Best Video, where you can find movies like GATES OF HEAVEN, THE THIN BLUE LINE, The Fog of War, and many others!