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.