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Lightning doesn’t strike twice for Errol Morris interviewing a controversial U.S. government war hawk in The Unknown Known, an unsuccessful attempt to get inside the head, under the skin or through the looking glass of Bush administration Secretary of Defense and Iraq War proponent Donald Rumsfeld. Unlike the ever-adventurous director’s extraordinary 2003 The Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara participated in a penetrating examination of American Vietnam War decision-making, the new film just seems to tread water, both because Morris tediously recycles points he already made in his 2008 look at the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Standard Operating Procedure and even more because Rumsfeld gives away virtually nothing. Radius TWC will launch what will likely be a perfunctory theatrical release on Dec. 6, followed by the History Channel telecast.
Instantly recognizable as a Morris documentary by virtue of the fancy visuals and the pulsating musical accompaniment provided by Danny Elfman, in The Unknown Known all this is merely window dressing to distract the viewer from the fact that we will probably never know what goes on inside Rumsfeld’s head, so unwilling or unable is he to acknowledge complexities and analyze deeply.
The subject’s answers to two of Morris’ pertinent questions reflect Rumsfeld’s disinclination or inability to assess the results of enormous policy decisions. When Morris inquires as to what lesson the former Nixon administration chief of staff learned from Vietnam, he replies, “Some things work out, some thing don’t.” Asked if it wouldn’t have been better not to invade Iraq, Rumsfeld says, “Well, I guess time will tell.” If this is truly the level of insight the man has to offer, it reveals something very scary about the minds of those in power. If this is just Rumsfeld being coy and not a responsive subject for a film that offers him the opportunity to really open up about his views and explain himself, then Morris should have probably packed up his cameras, gone home and let the man put on one more big Cheshire cat grin over having made the Massachusetts lefty run for cover.
As it is, the film offers up little word games about the deep meanings of different combinations of the words “known” and “unknown,” traces U.S. awareness of and reactions to attacks on the nation beginning with Pearl Harbor and rehashes the Bush administration’s obsession with Saddam Hussein, even as Rumsfeld insists the Bush team never claimed the dictator had anything to do with 9/11.
Morris breaks up the focus on recent history with a march through Rumsfeld’s career, which proves fairly interesting due to some of the surprising details. A former navy man and congressman, he performed different roles in the Nixon White House. But he was never part of the Haldeman/Ehrlichman team and was posted with NATO in Europe while Watergate played out, only to be called back by President Ford for various top positions. We get Rumsfeld’s version of the attempted assassination of Ford in San Francisco — he was right there with the president — are reminded that he became the youngest Secretary of Defense in history when Ford appointed him, that he fought Henry Kissinger over detente with the Soviet Union, was considered as Ford’s running mate in the 1976 election and was strongly in the mix to join Ronald Reagan‘s ticket four years later, only to be bypassed by a rival who didn’t trust him, George Bush.
One of the ironies of the story is that, after serving as a special envoy in the Middle East in the wake of the suicide bombing of U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Rumsfeld says he advised “lightening up” in the region, as we are “too big a target.” Cut to 2001 and one more repetition of the Iraq nightmare, Rumsfeld’s admission of insufficient preparation, his denials that the military ever waterboarded, talk of his endless memos and his eventual firing by George W. Bush after multiple attempts to resign.
Neatly dressed in a suit, Rumsfeld always sits upright and gives the impression of being ready for anything Morris might throw at him; there’s no way this smart whippersnapper is going to trip him up, you sense him thinking. The director does get his subject tangled up in some verbal trip wires but this doesn’t prove anything. In fact, the only time Morris confounds his subject is with his last question, “Why are you talking to me?” A flustered Rumsfeld shoots back, “That’s a vicious question. I’ll be damned if I know.” An unknown unknown.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Opens: Dec. 6 (Radius TWC)
Production: Moxie Pictures, History Films, Participant Media
With: Donald Rumsfeld
Director: Errol Morris
Producers: Errol Morris, Robert Fernandez, Amanda Branson Gill
Executive producers: Dick Hoogstra, Julian P. Hobbs, Molly Thompson, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Tom Quinn, Jason Janego, Josh Braun, Celia Taylor, Angus Wall, Julia Sheehan
Director of photography: Robert Chappell
Production designers: Ted Bafaloukas, Jeremy Landman
Editor: Steven Hathaway
Music: Danny Elfman
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