Director: Errol Morris
Running time: 96 minutes
For all the time I spend watching and writing about movies, one of the pop culture areas that has sadly fallen by the wayside is politics. I'm not afraid to admit that.
Aside from Real Time with Bill Maher and the occasional episodes of The Daily Show, my consumption of politics news reports and television programs isn't nearly as frequent as it should be, so you'd think that a screening of acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris's new film about former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, would be easily skippable during Fantastic Fest, where the lineup features more than enough horror, sci-fi, and thriller entries to satiate my out-there cinema interests. But that's precisely why The Unknown Known was so appealing—why not go beyond my personal comfort zone? In the control of a filmmaking giant like Errol Morris, I'd surely learn a hell of a lot about someone who, although of whom I've read the surface-level amount of news about, is one of many political figures who's life is largely a mystery.
Amidst the Japanese dominatrixes, zombie rape, and bloodthirsty yakuza gangsters should come worldly enlightenment…right? Oddly enough, not quite. Though it makes for a brisk and engaging 90-minute experience, The Unknown Known is strangely lightweight, a softball-tossing session from Morris that's mostly rudimentary. To his credit, Morris is such a gifted filmmaker that he's able to present what's ultimately a mildly contentious and altogether cordial conversation as riveting entertainment, aided a great deal by composer Danny Elfman's pulsating and darkly whimsical score. The Unknown Known feels like it's heading toward that one great reveal, or at least a series of blow-for-blow exchanges between Rumsfeld and Morris, his interviewer, but in the end it's pleasantly intriguing. Coming from the man who boldly pulled multiple eye-opening truths out of that other former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in The Fog of War (2003), though, that's underwhelming.
Throughout The Unknown Known, Morris—whose omnipresent voice is heard asking questions more than in any of his previous films—captures Rumsfeld's somewhat awkward mannerisms and "measured," as Rumsfeld himself put it, disposition without ever trying to get him off balance. Using Rumsfeld's countless personal memos, which he recorded via dictaphone and wrote down from his time spent working under President Richard Nixon in the late 1960s to ending his governmental run under George W. Bush in late 2006, as his entry points, Morris does pull some candid moments from his subject. In regards to his famous 1983 sit-down with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Rumsfeld recalls the Iraqi enemy as a posturer, someone who fed into his own hype as a master baddie and, by that point, had become a "caricature" of himself. The film's harshest and least friendly back-and-forth happens over the torturing at Guantanamo Bay, which gets Rumsfeld to say that he still wishes Bush would have accepted the two resignations he tried pushing through.
Those moments aside, though, The Unknown Known doesn't go much further past what you've already read in newspapers. Atypically, Morris lets Rumsfeld off the hook during the film's most potentially dangerous talking points, namely Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, where the filmmaker has more than a few clear openings to grill Rumsfeld but lets the politician's "Stuff happens" sentiment serve as the final word. Rumsfeld controls the discussion, not Morris. With his charming smile, disarming aloofness, and I'm-just-happy-to-be-here demeanor, Rumsfeld might not know exactly why he's sitting down with Morris, but he's well aware that he's non-vocally calling the shots.
Considering that my prior knowledge of Rumsfeld's various exploits was pedestrian at best, it's all the more disappointing that now, several hours removed from The Unknown Known, I'm no closer to ever sparring in a debate with Wolf Blitzer.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)