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The Unknown Known

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Doing what it is that he does best, documentarian Errol Morris points a camera at former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and allows him to discuss his life and career in this semi-follow up to The Fog of War. The big question is – can it be enjoyable regardless of where your political alliances lie?

First and foremost, I should state that I approached this movie, and, by default, this review, with the intention of basing my opinions of it based solely on the strengths of it as a movie. In that sense, it is largely successful. Morris has been doing this for a long time and is smart enough to know that when featuring a subject as singular and divisive as Rumsfeld, it’s best to get out of the way and let that person either hang themselves or emerge triumphant. Unfortunately for Rumsfeld, he lands mostly in the former camp.

The Unknown Known
Directed by Errol Morris
Cast Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris
Release Date 11 April 2014
Jason's Grade: B

It should be said that, as an interview subject here, Rumsfeld is incredibly charismatic, which is very important when you are the only one speaking (with the exception of some questions from Morris) for 103 minutes straight.  If you go into the film without a familiarity for the man himself, it’s actually highly likely that he’ll win you over personality-wise.

Where he may start to lose you, however, is in his twisty word play that often doubles back upon itself to the point of banality.  The title of the movie alone is based on the Rumsfeld quote “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 - these are things we do not know we don't know."  Sure, you may agree with the validity of the sentiment behind such statements, but he dips into that well so often, he begins to lose your trust as a reliable narrator.  Morris seems to be questioning whether or not “clever word-play” is an actual qualification that we look for in a political leader.

There are also several instances in which it’s obvious that Rumsfeld is caught leaving out pertinent information, or even outright feeding the audience a nontruth.  From a viewer standpoint, one can’t help but wish that Morris had pushed him a little harder in these instances and given us the sensationalism that would go a long way in breaking up the talking head format, but you can see where that would certainly defeat the purpose in what he was trying to achieve here.  Still, a little more “Jerry Springer” would have upped the entertainment value a bit, even if, ultimately, hurting the film as a whole.

Instead, Morris uses the editing room as his counter-point here.  Many would say that a documentarian should go into a film subjectively and just point and shoot his camera.  In reality, especially with material as delicate as we have here, it’s ridiculous to expect a filmmaker not to have a viewpoint.  Morris doesn’t impose his feelings on Rumsfeld himself (for the most part), but the way the film is spliced together certainly makes quite a few points.

It’s not all just point and shoot the camera at Rumsfeld in a chair, however.  Wisely, Morris develops a very effective, if a bit neurotic, visual style that adds to the overall proceedings.  Historical clips, animations, newspaper clippings, still photos, press conference footage and much more, along with shots of Rumsfeld’s own “snowflakes” (memos on plain white paper that he sent out over the years to various staff members) is used to break up the visual.    The score, by Tim Burton regular Danny Elfman, is some of the best work that he has done in years, but it is far overused.  It makes sense to think that it is necessary in a project like this, but a little goes a long way.

JASON’S FINAL THOUGHTS

Being as non-politically minded as I am, I feared that an hour and forty minutes of watching one of the most divisive and alienating politician of all time would be in tough competition for my attention.  At times, it definitely is as the film’s most interesting bits of information (including an opening segment on 9/11) are certainly front-loaded into the first half of the film.  As the movie goes on, it does start to feel as if you’re watching the same structure over and over as each point in Rumsfeld’s life and career is touched upon.  But, ultimately, it’s still fascinating material presented in a visually interesting way with a charming subject.  If you love him or you hate him, this film won’t change your mind.  But, there’s no denying that Donald Rumsfeld has a killer answer to the film’s final question.

Review by Lead Writer and Film Critic, Jason Howard

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