Errol Morris is incapable of making a boring documentary. His latest, “The Unknown Known”, based on over thirty hours of interviews with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is a companion piece to “The Fog of War”, his interview with former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara. In that film, which won Morris an Oscar in 2005, self-reflective McNamara achieved a certain dignity as the apologist for Kennedy’s real politic. Rumsfeld, who sidesteps reflection, is a different sort of animal.
Charming, cagy Rumsfeld manages to obfuscate throughout.
“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” states Rumsfeld in one of his elaborate verbal metaphors in an infamous 2002 press conference about gathering intelligence during wartime.
The quote inspired the film.
Morris had access to all of Rumsfeld’s unclassified “snowflakes”, the storm of constant memos that famously characterized his public and private life. Morris, who spent time as a P.I. as well as a filmmaker, also convinced Rumsfeld to read from many of his classified memos.
Staring into Morris’s “Interrotron”, a two-camera setup with two way mirrors that places both interviewer and interviewee’s face in the lens before them, Rumsfeld displays the elfin hyper vigilance that served him so well in his political life. Presiding over decades of frightening secrets, smug Rumsfeld grins at us like a face out of Heironymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Rumsfeld’s articulate style enables him to evade any actual revelations, leaving Morris’s expressionist metaphors and calm persistence to frame a portrait of a cunning charmer holding all his cards to his chest. He is a master of the bland, banal euphumism. “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”.
Morris’s uses visual metaphors: cascades of memos falling like snowflakes become snowflakes. He edits in a Republican Rogues Gallery: Nixon, Ford, Regan, Kissinger, both Bushes and the go-to boys Donald Rumsfeld and assistant Dick Cheney, who served all of the above. Images of Saddam Hussein stand in for hoped for revelations about George W. Bush’s approach to Iraq.
As Rumsfeld eludes questions on illegal torture techniques in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, as well as secret prisons in the U.S.,Morris amps up his imagery, set to Danny Elfman’s expressive score.
Occasionally Morris reveals Rumsfeld’s lies with photo evidence; in a collage of silent stock footage and satellite pictures, Morris steps up his expressionist tricks in the last third of the film, as if exasperated at Rumsfeld’s impenetrable veneer. He shows us a swamp to illustrate the chaos of Iraq and ends the film with dreamlike images of ocean waves- the waves of words, memos and metaphors enshrouding Rumsfeld’s legacy.
Rumsfeld shares a story about his experience at the Pentagon when it was struck during 911: and if I remember aright, there’s footage of him helping carrying a survivor on a stretcher.
Rumsfeld does reveal the soundproof walk-in closet he had installed in his residence for receiving covert messages; his version of Maxwell Smart’s “cone of silence”, as well as Al Haig’s safe left in Rumsfeld’s office after Nixon left the White House.
If anything, Morris displays narcissistic Rumsfeld in a specimen jar, like the pickled punks exhibits once found in traveling tent shows, or the exhibits of dangerous spiders in museums. We stare at the animal that no longer poses a threat to us, listen to his adroit insinuations and ponder the new age of “intelligence” gathering, which in its scope, has already drowned Rumsfeld’s lifetime of memos in a self-proliferating world wide web of digital files.
One of the architects of Orwellian political euphemism, Rumsfeld visually glories in his word play as he circumvents each of Morris’ pointed questions. It’s almost an autopsy on the art of political spin, leaving Morris to paint his picture between the lines. Rumsfeld, still displaying a vestigial political charisma is the de-fanged harbinger of the emerging world order of Corporate Feudalism.