The winner, by default, in the “released on 4/4/14” sweepstakes(“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Under the Skin”, and, of course, “Nymph()maniac, Vol. 2” are all coming soon—I promise!), is Errol Morris’s 10th documentary feature—“The Unknown Known” via Video On Demand(it had received an official release in Manhattan 2 days prior). An unofficial sequel, to the Academy Award-winning “The Fog of War” from Morris in 2003, the two could play back-to-back as compelling companion pieces, despite the unmistakable dichotomy concerning their respective Secretary of Defense interview subjects. Whereas, Robert McNamara could be described as an accessible, and even malleable, interviewee when taken to task by Morris in his analysis of the handling of the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld, on the other hand, is decidedly more obstructive, and even impenetrable, when discussing the lead-up to, and execution of, the Iraq War(or, some would say, the second Iraq War)that began in 2003. However, Rumsfeld is still a fascinating interlocutor, regardless of his evasiveness.
And “The Unknown Known” is a fascinating film(and one that’s prominently dedicated to critic Roger Ebert, a longtime Morris champion straight on back to Errol’s 1978 “Gates of Heaven” debut) —but also a frustrating one. Maybe Morris needed a larger gap of time between his talks with Rumsfeld and the war the man is responsible for. For instance, Morris had nearly three decades of buffer time between McNamara and the Viet Cong. Or possibly, it’s just too contemporary a conflict for this 48 year-old critic to be as blown away as I was by “The Fog of War”. Don’t get me wrong…I like “The Unknown Known” very much. But I admit to shopping and comparing. “The Fog of War” is the better film, and I believe Morris had slipped a notch since grabbing the Oscar(2008’s “Standard Operating Procedure” and 2011’s “Tabloid” were solid, if unspectacular non-fiction features. And even though the Iraq War wasn’t the sole subject matter of Errol’s 33 hours with Rumsfeld(whittled down to a nicely paced 105 minutes), it is undoubtedly the centerpiece, and you’ll most likely be wishing that Morris would go tougher on his subject through his questioning, rather than falling back of his now recognizable technique of long takes with pregnant pauses. It’s still effective, but now there’s a strong scent of deja vu. Plus, we know there is “there there”, and it is a nifty experience watch Morris trying to dig it out.
Of course, Rumsfeld has a rationalization for everything, and he obfuscates often. He admits there were mistakes made with Iraq, but has conjured an explanation for everything. Rumsfeld is obviously an intelligent, experienced man who rarely takes a backwards step—even when history betrays his recollections. Rumsfeld ducks and dodges expertly, even resorting to calling himself “cool” when Morris opines that Donald is “obsessive”. You’ll hear often about the infamous “snowflakes”(memos on little pieces of paper that occurred with such frequency that they resembled a snowstorm at times, according to Rumsfeld’s underlings). Rumsfeld defends George W. Bush, takes at least one shot at Barack Obama, and fires more than one towards George H. W. Bush(who received the vice presidential seat over Rumsfeld on the 1980 Republican ticket). And you’ll even shake your head and chuckle at the horror show of Mr. Rumsfeld demanding the “dictionary definition” of various easy -to-define words from his subordinates, for the express purpose of molding and twisting the meaning to fit his own agenda. Then there’s Rumsfeld’s unforgettable NATO press conference where he spoke of “known knowns” and “known unknowns”. Riveting material. So, maybe Errol Morris couldn’t quite match the quality of “The Fog of War”. But you still shouldn’t miss his latest work, if only for what’s not said as much as what is. Grade: B+