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Errol Morris
Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris
Writing Credits:
Errol Morris

Why Is This Man Smiling?

Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld discusses his career in Washington D.C. from his days as a congressman in the early 1960s to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$64,315 on 18 Screens
Domestic Gross

Rated PG-13

Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 103 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 7/1/2014

• Audio Commentary with Director Errol Morris
• “Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense” (1989)
• “A Conversation with Errol Morris” Featurette
• Four-Part Op-Ed “The Certainty of Donald Rumseld” by Errol Morris
• Previews


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


The Unknown Known [Blu-Ray] (2014)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 15, 2014)

In the same vein as his Oscar-winning The Fog of War comes 2014’s The Unknown Known, the latest from director Errol Morris. While Fog examined Kennedy/Johnson Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Known looks at Donald Rumsfeld, the man who held the same position under George W. Bush.

Like Fog, Known eschews new interview footage with anyone other than its main subject. The program mixes his remarks with archival footage and looks at a variety of topics. As one might expect, Rumsfeld’s time in the Bush administration receives most of the attention, but he also discusses his political career, his personal life, and his work under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan.

I have a longtime friend with whom I find it tough to have conversations related to opinion for he rarely seems to accept the notion that nuance exists. With him, there’s almost always one right answer to every situation and no discussion can result – why argue when there’s no possibility that a second viewpoint enjoys validity?

As I watched Known, I felt a bit of déjà vu, as Rumsfeld’s attitude seems to reflect that same sense of black/white I experience with my friend. Some may argue that this attitude reflects a moral certitude and that some issues deserve stark treatment. I would agree on a handful of subjects – I’m not going to endorse gray area when it comes to genocide, for instance – but I think the vast majority of subjects come with no clear right/wrong solution.

One never gets the sense that Rumsfeld feels that way, and as Known progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to comprehend the substance behind Rumsfeld’s beliefs. Put more bluntly, the more one sees of Rumsfeld, the tougher it becomes to locate any substance at all in the man’s statements; instead, it comes across that Rumsfeld believes what he believes because he believes it and no evidence of fact needs to be present.

All of this presumes you might make heads or tails from Rumsfeld’s elliptical statements. Rumsfeld loves to spout elusive verbiage that argues the nature of questions much more than it answers them. Rumsfeld rarely – if ever – really replies to Morris’s queries; instead, he toys with the language of the statements themselves and avoids substantive comment.

Since the film’s release, Morris received criticism because he didn’t hold Rumsfeld’s feet to the fire. Some seem disappointed that Morris never gets Rumsfeld to crack, as if the film requires some sort of grand confession of sins to succeed.

I disagree and think it probably works better because Rumsfeld never backs off of his long-held viewpoints. Morris “allows” Rumsfeld to spin his verbal web and doesn’t often challenge the former Defense Secretary’s lack of content.

I get that frustration, as the average viewer will likely want to shout “answer the frickin’ question already!” at Rumsfeld, but I think I understand the method behind Morris’s behavior. When I went into the film, I expected I’d disagree with Rumsfeld’s actions/views, but I figured I’d find an intelligent man who would explain his decisions and choices.

If Rumsfeld has the ability to discuss his work in any comprehensive manner, that Rumsfeld fails to appear here. Instead, the Rumsfeld on display shows a shocking lack of insight. For instance, when asked about the lessons of Vietnam, Rumsfeld replies “some things work out and some don’t”.

Seriously - a man who possessed immense power in the US government learned nothing from Vietnam beyond that? Superficial responses of this sort abound in Known, and Rumsfeld also contradicts himself on a frequent basis. I don’t think Rumsfeld even realizes that he does this; after all these decades in politics, he appears to lack any ability to examine the substance of matters and simply tosses out simplistic sound bites instead.

One also gets the impression that Rumsfeld doesn’t feel he made any mistakes across his career. A man who spent nearly 50 years in the political realm at no point concedes any potential slip-ups of even the most minor sort. Is this simply the bravado of a career politician who likes to stick by his guns? Maybe, but I continue to feel that Rumsfeld lacks the intelligence and insight to understand the negative side effects of his choices.

If Morris had become a more aggressive interrogator, I think Found would’ve suffered. As it stands, Rumsfeld tends to hang himself with his own rope. If the film came with only a handful of scenes in which Rumsfeld dances around subjects and he had to face more aggressive questioning the rest of the time, we’d likely see him differently. Heck, if Morris became too pushy, we might even feel bad for Rumsfeld.

But the more Morris lets Rumsfeld talk, the less impressive he becomes. Rumsfeld’s verbal pirouettes initially seem moderately clever, but the longer he chats, the more we see his comments as nothing more than glib nothingness. Rumsfeld focuses on the language of the material and ignores the substance, so Morris’s lack of aggressive counterquestioning becomes a strength.

Though Fog of War earned an Oscar, I felt less than enchanted with its stylistic choices. I thought Morris focuses too much of a mix of cinematic gimmicks, and these tended to distract from the material at the core of the film.

Happily, Morris fixes many of these mistakes in Known. He delivers a more stable film, as it lacks the flashy techniques of its predecessor, and it seems less focused on pointless visuals and audio. Perhaps the simplicity of Rumsfeld’s worldview made it easier for Morris, as he may’ve felt less need to illustrate intellectual intricacies, but whatever the case, Known comes across as a more coherent film without the awkward choices that often marred Fog.

This tighter focus allows Known to become a more involving, concise view of its subject, even if that subject lacks a whole of substance at his core. Aspects of the film may frustrate some viewers, but I think it provides an involving – and depressing – tale.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus B

The Unknown Known appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Given the nature of the production, the picture quality seemed pretty positive.

I didn’t factor the archival material not shot explicitly for Known into my grade. Those elements demonstrated all sorts of flaws, but it didn’t seem fair to criticize the disc for problems with that kind of stuff.

As for the new shots, they presented solid sharpness. The new elements consistently looked crisp and detailed, and they betrayed few signs of softness. Those bits portrayed no problems with jagged edges or shimmering, and edge haloes remained absent. Outside of the archival materials, print flaws failed to mar the presentation.

Not surprisingly, the movie’s palette tended toward natural tones. The hues came across with positive clarity and definition, so they were more than adequate within their low-key goals. Blacks also seemed deep and firm, while the occasional low-light shots appeared well defined and clean. Overall, this was a satisfying presentation.

Given the film’s focus, I expected little from the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of Known but instead found it to provide a relatively involving effort. Of course, dialogue remained the focus, as the majority of the film’s information came from interviews or other conversational bits.

However, the program used audio cues well to gently support the visuals. These mostly connected to the scenes of warfare. Those never became full-volume like they would in a recreation of such actions, as they remained in the background. Nonetheless, battle elements showed good movement and localization, and they also spread to the rear well. The track occasionally even offered some split-surround material, such as the flight of planes. Again, this stayed subdued, but it manifested itself well.

Audio quality also seemed fine. Speech was consistently crisp and concise, with no issues connected to edginess or intelligibility. Music and effects remained background elements to a substantial degree, but they seemed well-reproduced and clear. Ultimately, the audio of Known complimented the film.

A mix of extras pop up here, and these open with an audio commentary from director Errol Morris. He provides a running, screen-specific look at the movie’s themes and focus, its subject matter, and related areas.

Don’t expect a lot of insight from Morris about his filmmaking processes. For one, a lot of dead air occurs, so we find many pockets in which Morris says nothing. In addition, he often does little more than exhibit disdain toward Rumsfeld. Morris clearly doesn’t like or respect his documentary subject, so the commentary acts more as a criticism of the former Secretary of Defense than anything else.

This comes as a major disappointment because we don’t learn much about how Morris made the movie or what he experienced during the shoot. We don’t get a sense of what it was like to interact with Rumsfeld and Morris leaves some thoughts incomplete. For instance, he tells us of his respect for Rumsfeld’s wife but doesn’t elaborate, so we don’t learn anything about her. An occasional worthwhile nugget appears here, but don’t expect many of those in this problematic commentary.

We hear more from the director in A Conversation with Errol Morris. In this eight-minute, 15-second piece, Morris discusses his goals for the film, working with Rumsfeld, and the result of their sessions. The featurette seems too short to offer much substance, but it fleshes out some useful topics – and covers material that should’ve shown up in the commentary.

From December 1989, the Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense goes for 56 minutes, 53 seconds. This program features former Defense Secretaries Melvin Laird (Nixon administration), Caspar Weinberger (Reagan administration), Frank Carlucci (Reagan administration), Robert McNamara (Kennedy/Johnson administration), Donald Rumsfeld (Ford administration) and James Schlesinger (Nixon/Ford administrations). Under the theme “US Defense: Beyond the Cold War”, the various officials discuss then-current US concerns.

Obviously the subject matter is dated, but it’s cool to get a look at so many notables as they discuss substantial issues. Viewers of Known will most enjoy the glimpses of Rumsfeld – who seemed no less sure of himself then than he does now – but it’s good to see the others as well. Fog of War fans will also dig the comments from Robert McNamara.

A text component arrives with Morris’s Four-Part Op-Ed “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld”. In this, Morris discusses his take on Rumsfeld’s character and adds comments from others in the same vein. This becomes an intriguing editorial view from the director.

The disc opens with ads for Fed Up and Inequality for All. No trailer for Known appears here.

After half a century of public service, is it possible that Donald Rumsfeld took away nothing more substantial than “stuff happens”? Based on the Rumsfeld on display in The Unknown Known, that appears to be the case, as the film offers a fascinating – and disturbing – portrait of a surprisingly superficial person. The Blu-ray offers positive picture and audio along with some useful bonus materials, even if the commentary disappoints. Known may deliver Errol Morris’s best documentary.

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