THE UNKNOWN KNOWN
Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on Rotten Tomatoes
Director: Errol Morris
Cast: Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris
Screened at: Park Avenue, NYC, 1/31/14
Opens: April 2, 2014
Based on the mistakes that Donald Rumsfeld made—and noting that he seems to offer no apology for them—perhaps the U.S. would have been served better if Don were a secretary to a middle manager of Walmart than U.S. Secretary of Defense. In Errol Morris’s highly stylized documentary—punctuated by Danny Elfman’s original score, some snazzy editing and a wealth of special effects—Rumsfold smiles insincerely, is fond of using euphemisms like “stuff happens,” “heck,” and “goodness gracious. Yet he is also likable to the movie audience as a person but not much if evaluated by his affection for President George W. Bush. Bush got us into Iraq and Rumsfeld defended it, and what’s more, he peppers the screen with a love for lexicography. He differentiates between the Pentagon dictionary and the “regular” lexicon. Each time the former secretary throws out a word for definition, documentarian Morris litters the screen with words. Morris seems bent on reproducing a good share of the 20,000 memos that Rumsfeld sent while in the Defense chair, and the filmmaker is determined—and usually succeeds—in making what could have been like a dull Congressional hearing on C-Span into a work that is of interest to the audience. The subject of the film calls his memos “snowflakes,” a reference to their ubiquity, but then, no two snowflakes are alike, yet we wonder how original snowflake from November 2003 could be versus snowflake from December 2003.
Though Rumsfeld granted Morris thirty hours of his time, the filmmaker does not feel beholden to give him the fluff treatment. Always wearing a suit with a tie though the latter has become no longer obligatory, he speaks to Morris and to us with cryptic, abstract sentences, wherein we get the title “the unknown known.” Sounding like a student trying to decipher Søren Kierkegaard and Jeremy Bentham, he notes that “there are known knowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns.” Repeating his “philosophy” several times in this film, he appears to contradict himself when he defends U.S. policy in giving Iraq the shock and awe treatment (definitions of which are put up on the big screen), yet admits that there are some things that we think we know and yet we do not.
Don Rumsfeld is nothing if not a political person, having taken his career with government step by step from four terms in the House of Representatives, shuffling about in the Nixon cabinet, and emerging from Watergate whistle clean. He was almost chosen as Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980, a job that went instead of George H.W. Bush. No love was lost between Bush senior and Rumsfeld.
One cannot determine whether he is sincere in offering President Bush 43 his resignation when “terrible things happened on my watch,” specifically the hideous torture of Muslim prisoners by American servicemen even when the humiliations had nothing to do with potential information the inmates could supply. In the final question asked of Rumsfeld, “Why are you speaking to me?” the former secretary evaded the question as if to say, “Hey, Errol, it’s publicity, good or bad: who cares?”
In “My Fair Lady,” Eliza Doolittle says to Professor Henry Higgins, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words,” Eliza would not have stayed in the movie theater for more than fifteen minutes listening to the secretary’s logorrhea, and for his part, Errol Morris uses the vast ocean, waves abounding, as metaphor for an ocean of words. Entertaining though the doc may be, we may wonder whether any truth can come from the mouth of a man who is determined to justify himself at all costs and seems unwilling to break down and confess to an unnecessary war.
Rated PG-13. 102 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B