Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway The Unknown Known Famed documentarian Errol Morris strikes again with "The Unknown Known" an unusual and quirky portrait of the notorious former Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld.
The first shot of the film is of an infinite navy blue sea with a foreboding score by Danny Elfman. Perhaps this points to Rumsfeld being the captain of his own warship, or maybe it points to Rumsfeld's subconscious as the waves of guilt and circumstance wash over him.
Whatever the case, here he is, in the flesh or at least under Errol's unblinking eye. The director offers his usual flair, giving us segmented Kubrickian shots of Rumsfeld's eye, forehead, chin and lips.
Indeed one of the first looks we have of this man is unflinching and almost grotesque in intensity. This is an Andy Warhol screen test done on All Hallows' Eve.
The camera is the true hero of the film and Morris knows how to make his subject nervous by confronting him without displacing his Eye. Rumsfeld smiles nervously, his reptilian grin portraying an all-is-okay-or-it-better-be-shield. Over the magnification of Morris' lens, Rumsfeld's shiny gesture resembles a Jack O'lantern.
The film highlights many of Rumsfeld's memos, of which there are thousands as individual as snowflakes. We learn that Rumsfeld obsessed over many "what if" terrorist scenarios and that he also sought the most productive way to manipulate the insurgency threat, by looking up words like "torture" and "warfare," not to mention both the Pentagon and the Oxford definitions of the word "insurgency." His much reported statements about "unknown knowns" and "known unknowns" and also the "things you think you know that you don't know," are a living embodiment of George Orwell come to life for the 21st century.
Suffice to say, he doesn't give much up. There are no apologies given and no regrets. Although he does admit to writing a critique of interrogation writing that he "stands 8 to 10 hours a day...why is the (prisoner) standing, limited to four hours?"
During Abu Ghraib, he said he was unaware. Then the pictures came with an undeniable proof and Rumsfeld knew the battle with Al Qaeda was in crisis. He tried to resign but the administration wouldn't have it. In 2006, Rumsfeld got his wish.
Under usual conditions, Morris makes people cringe and reveal. Rumsfeld however is the exception.
He stands by his admission of weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq saying in short that there could very well have been present ("I just don't know"). He states that even if there were no weapons it might not have avoided war anyway. More than a bit of Rumsfeld's Grinch is opened here. The smiles become like exclamation points and they are put on too late.
Rumsfeld is moved to tears telling of his talk with the injured at Walter Reed. There is a heart here, but such tears are like condensation on glass or intemperate steel. The emotion, although genuine, feels loose and ill fitting poised as it is against Guantanamo and the sad horror of Abu Ghraib.
A good third of the film is spent detailing the genesis of Rumsfeld from Nixon to Gerald Ford with movements as slick as an anchovy. We get the definitive vibration that he threw George H.W. Bush under a diplomatic bus with some coziness regarding Ronald Reagan, but explicit details are opaque.
Such turnings by Rumsfeld are reminiscent of the espionage documentary "The Man Nobody Knew" but before he becomes a total cypher, his memos on torture become a swirling and oily abyss of a guilty alphabet as visualized on film. Rather than a vacuum of a man, Rumsfeld is a chromium figure of war: coldly calm, transmitting silver beads rather than sweat. An insular force.
We see Rumsfeld at his most blackly humored when he flashes a lingering, unapologetic and disturbing smile. Abracadabra, at last, here is the shark-eyed man that most have loved to hate with fingernails of sardonyx.
Errol Morris has lifted the curtain once again without pretense and this is what makes "The Unknown Known" such an intriguing film. Write Ian at email@example.com