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As its subtitle suggests, one reason Errol Morris' 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara proved so resonant is that its subject was partly a proxy for his most notorious professional successor, the decidedly less available Donald Rumsfeld. "I don't do quagmires," Rumsfeld said in a news briefing around that time, and there was the desperate sense that if life lessons could be learned from a chief architect of the Vietnam War, they sure as hell ought to be learned by a chief architect of the Iraq War.
Having been liberated from that job in 2006, Rumsfeld is marginally more available now, and Morris is ready for him. The Unknown Known is an unmistakably Morrisish enterprise: built around a single-source interview, with the source looking straight into the camera and letting us try to get a read on him. In fact, were this merely a plain old movie, you might say it has a touch of sequelitis. But The Unknown Known is more than a plain old movie. It's a deferred inquisition.
Credit is due to any attempt at teasing a film out of Rumsfeld's most notorious sound bite. It's too bad The Unknown Known manages mostly just to extend the sport he made of seeming callous, albeit absorbingly, at press conferences. Here again Rumsfeld takes questions as if only for the challenge of riposting them with non-answers. Here again he tends to disappear behind his Cheshire Cat smile, which may finally imply that his ideal inquisitor isn't Morris.
The Unknown Known
Directed by Errol Morris.
But let's stick to what we know we know. Before Rumsfeld served as secretary of defense under George W. Bush, he did so under Gerald Ford, at which time Rumsfeld's then-assistant Dick Cheney took over for him as Ford's chief of staff. He has been both the youngest and the oldest person to have the job — and he both had his resignation refused and was fired. The career alone seems Kafkaesque. And the man? He calls himself cool and measured, as opposed to obsessive, and he is certainly cool enough to convey an emotional detachment from human suffering. But surely some kind of compulsion must have inspired the tens of thousands of work memos he was known to write with finicky detail. Several of the memos, nicknamed "snowflakes," appear in Morris' film, with Rumsfeld reading them aloud.
"Within a few years the U.S. will undoubtedly have to confront a Saddam armed with nuclear weapons," he wrote in July 2001. Well, we did manage to avoid that. Reading his own words again, Rumsfeld's tone is not repentant, but it is consistent with his habit of parsing semantics — "the absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence" — while human lives and possibly human civilization were at stake. Apparently he spent a lot of time poring over the Pentagon dictionary, which of course is different from the regular dictionary. Maybe it was just Rumsfeld's way of dithering, or sublimating his own uncertainties.
Morris tries to engage Rumsfeld about Shakespeare's view of history, as a grand and bloody escalation of character flaws and petty jealousies, but Rumsfeld doesn't seem like a literary guy. Revealing neither ambition nor a sense of duty, he calmly agrees that had Reagan chosen him as running mate he might eventually have become president himself.
Every time Morris seems to be handing over a length of rope for Rummy to hang himself with, the smug bastard just ties it into to a fancy Boy Scout knot. Of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, he says, "I felt a very strong sense that something terrible had happened — on my watch." But quite unlike McNamara reflecting on Vietnam in The Fog of War, he doesn't seem even a little bit broken up about it. Rumsfeld's sense of statesmanship seems to consist of remaining one of those people who's more likely to say "I'm sorry you feel that way" than "I'm sorry."
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