Along with Michael Moore, Errol Morris is arguably America's preeminent documentarian still working. Morris' recent nonfiction films include 2003's Academy Award winning "The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara" and 2008's Berlin International Film Festival Jury Grand Prize winner "Standard Operating Procedure." The former sought to explain why America went "down the same rabbit hole again" (as Morris put it during his Oscar acceptance speech) by invading Iraq through an investigation of the so-called "Mac the Knife," who was U.S. Secretary of Defense during much of the Vietnam War. The second doc examined torture committed by Americans at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
Morris' latest documentary, "The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld," is a sort of cinematic synthesis and updating of the two, as the master moviemaker focuses his "Interrotron" on the man who was Defense Secretary during the Iraq War and is suspected of sharing responsibility for torturing prisoners from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo and for committing other crimes against humanity. The Interrotron is a recording device somewhat similar to a teleprompter that enables the interview subject to appear to be making direct eye contact with the interviewer, and hence with the audience. The term, which was coined by Morris' wife, producer Julia Sheehan, enhances the "first person" and "fly on the wall" nature of Q&As while suggesting the words "interrogation," "interview" and -- appropriately, in Rumsfeld's case -- "terror."
"The Unknown Known" follows Rumsfeld, the Don Corleone of elite Republican politics, through his career as a four-term Congressman in the 1960s to his stints pulling strings behind-the-scenes in the administrations of presidents Nixon and Ford, serving the latter as America's youngest Secretary of Defense. The doc focuses on Rumsfeld's return to that post during George W. Bush's disastrous presidency at the behest of longtime Rumsfeld crony, Dick Cheney. In this doc the unknown becomes known largely through the 20,000 memos the verbose Rumsfeld circulated during his six years as the Bush administration's hit man. Building upon what the ex-Defense Secretary dubs "snowflakes," Morris once again goes down the rabbit hole as he follows Rumsfeld's arrogant paper trail and creates one of the documentary's central cinematic metaphors.
Morris is at his best when he uses filmmaking's audio-visual language to express ideas and break the tedium of talking heads on the big screen. In 1988's "The Thin Blue Line," about a Texan wrongfully convicted of murder, Morris memorably enlivened the action with a slow motion crime scene reenactment featuring a flying milkshake, which provided a vital clue for the case. In "The Unknown Known," Morris opens up the screen with beautiful black and white time lapse cinematography of Washington, D.C. and repeatedly uses the snowflake theme to make his case against Rumsfeld and his snow job, as Rummy reads many of his memos aloud. At one point Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" plays on the soundtrack. (The documentary's original music is by Danny Elfman, who also composed scores for "Batman" and "Spider-Man" movies.) Another visual metaphor Morris deploys is images of the ocean, perhaps to give form to the gabby Rumsfeld's sea of words.
Morris' cleverest use of cinematic symbolism, however, is aural: he overlays one track of Rumsfeld speaking over another, thereby creating the impression that the Pentagon top banana was literally a double talker. For instance, to sidestep the Geneva Conventions, Rumsfeld refers to "detainees" instead of "prisoners of war." Morris includes a canny clip of the 2002 press conference, wherein Rumsfeld rather infamously said of Iraq's purported WMDs: "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." The title of Morris' film is derived from this convoluted quote, which is clearly classic Orwellian "doublespeak." (The doc's droll tagline is: "What you didn't know you didn't know.")
At other times Morris cannily cuts from a lie Rumsfeld tells the Interrotron to footage of a previous statement by him, in order to point out self-serving contradictions. Sometimes Rummy spars with his electronic interrogator, taking issue with Morris' use of the word "obsession" to describe his fixation on Iraq, retorting: "You like the word 'obsession.'" At other times Rumsfeld critics may feel that the interrogator isn't as hard hitting as he could be with the elusive subject. For instance, Rumsfeld's meeting with Saddam Hussein on Dec. 20, 1983 as the Reagan regime's special envoy to the Middle East is revisited, but Morris doesn't press Rummy on his shaking hands and dickering with the dictator who was at the time using chemical weapons against Kurds and Iranians -- while the Bush regime used Iraq's purported Weapons of Mass Destruction and Baghdad's prior use of WMDs as a pretext for war. Rumsfeld, who was among the top purveyors of disinformation about Saddam's WMDs, is predictably weasel-like when confronted about his lies regarding this matter, much as he is regarding the Bush administration's torture program.
Discussing Gitmo, Bagram and whether or not it was better for the U.S. to have not invaded Iraq Rumsfeld tellingly says "Time will tell," justifying Bush administration actions by pointing out that under Pres. Obama many Bush policies are "all still there." Rumsfeld also jokingly calls his interrogator's final question "vicious," prompting Morris to inquire: "Why are you talking to me?" Rumsfeld replies: "I'll be damned if I know." (In addition to trying to burnish his image and put his spin on history, this critic suspects a main reason why Rumsfeld agreed to be interviewed for "The Unknown Known" is in order to sell copies of his latest book.)
In any case, a better question for this man who helped lead this country into a completely unnecessary war is: "Why are you smiling?" Throughout the documentary Rumsfeld is jocular, even gleeful, grinning in Participant Media's picture promoting the film at the socially-aware production company's website. Inquiring minds would like to know why.
Rumsfeld can at least be happy that he was never charged with committing war crimes, which this film puts squarely into focus. Today, he walks around a free, very rich man. Maybe one day that will change, but for now we have Rumsfeld's many known unknowns still to deal with.
This video is from Vice, published August 29, 2013 -- A Sneak Peek of Errol Morris's New Documentary on Donald Rumsfeld.
"The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld" was presented as a "Special Screening" of the 2013 AFI Fest, the American Film Institute's annual film festival in Los Angeles. The documentary will be theatrically released in February 2014.
The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book", published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 25.