Review: ‘The Unknown Known’ fails to nail Donald Rumsfeld — but you knew that

Donald Rumsfeld fails to crack in Errol Morris' documentary "The Unknown Known." Credit: RADiUS-TWC
Donald Rumsfeld fails to crack in Errol Morris’ documentary “The Unknown Known.”
Credit: RADiUS-TWC

‘The Unknown Known’
Director Errol Morris
Star: Donald Rumsfeld
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

What was Errol Morris thinking when he set out to make an interview doc on Donald Rumsfeld? That’s not meant rhetorically. What was his specific game plan? Did he really expect to nail the former Secretary of Defense, to get him to open up about his hand in the near-destruction of the world? And if Morris always knew that he’d never break Rummy, even when using his critically acclaimed enhanced interrogation tactics, what would the result — namely “The Unknown Known” — prove exactly? Wouldn’t it simply reinstate the known known, namely that Rumsfeld is a glib, professionally elusive monster who either legitimately thinks he always acted in the right or lacks any capacity for introspection?

Whatever the motivation, “The Unknown Known” is fascinatingly uninteresting. One stares at it, combing over every dodged non-response and empty, haunting giggle for some sign of self-awareness. It’s like taking in a piece of modern art, the kind that forces you to question and perhaps broaden your definition of art, all while your mind wanders onto other topics. For instance, just how good is Morris at revealing the souls of his subjects? Is that even what he’s doing? Are we cheapening his work by focusing only on how successful they are at changing the world?

The answer to that question is a yes. Morris went from an offbeat documentarian, a chronicler of oddly melancholic eccentricity — as in 1978’s pet cemetery survey “Gates of Heaven” — to a kind of deity, when “The Thin Blue Line” helped undo a closed case and got an innocent man off of death row. But with his Oscar-winning “The Fog of War,” he didn’t really get to the heart of Robert McNamara, who ended the film feeling vilified, if mildly rattled. His Abu Ghraib film, “Standard Operating Procedure,” may seem pointless until you probe deeper into how it cinematically portrays self-delusion.

There’s almost certainly something trickier running through “The Unknown Known,” making it worthy of another look. Or maybe it really is as vacant as Rumsfeld’s conscience. It does suggest that Morris’ most famous technique — the use of the “Interrotron” — may be less useful than it’s assumed. The Interrotron is a camera that, instead of forcing the interviewee stare into a sterile lens, shows the face of the interviewer. The idea is that the subject can relax, drop his or her guard and maybe, for example, confess that they knowingly peddled disinformation that led to the deaths of an alarming number of innocents and American soldiers. But Rumsfeld chills too much, and is already a master at evasion anyway. But is that the point — that nothing and no one, not even Errol Morris, can dislodge his pent-up guilt? If so, didn’t we already know that? But is THAT the film’s point? But we already knew THAT. And so on and so forth.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


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