Wednesday, May 7, 2014


The Unknown Known is Errol Morris' latest documentary on the political career of Donald Rumsfeld. Like anything I’ve seen by Morris so far this is an excellent film, but whenever I mention it to my friends & co-workers, I usually get the same general response – “oh god I hate Donald Rumsfeld. I can’t sit through a whole movie about that guy.”
This says two things: 
1). People are still clearly not as familiar with Errol Morris as they should be, and aren’t aware of his ability to make just about anyone seem interesting. Hopefully his appearance on The Colbert Report last month will get him a little more notoriety.
2). This defiance towards seeing a Donald Rumsfeld documentary also shows how close-minded some folks are. Do people really just hear “Donald Rumsfeld documentary” and think it’s going to be some positive film dedicated to all the work he’s done over the years? Do these same people think Idi Amin was a documentary made to put the Ugandan leader in a positive light? I wonder if they also think Downfall is a film made to tell Hitler’s side of things...

I give Donald Rumsfeld respect for essentially stepping in to what could have been a lion’s den. Not only is Errol Morris on the opposite political spectrum, but this documentary's core audience is mostly made up of people on the political left (like myself, I guess). But for some strange reason, Rumsfeld was completely cooperative and allowed himself to be interviewed.
I also give Errol Morris a lot of respect. He had the upper hand as the filmmaker and could have easily edited & manipulated the documentary to misrepresent his subject but he didn't. Not to throw shots at Michael Moore, because at the end of the day I guess we are on the same team (we just sit at opposite ends of bench), but his brand of filmmaking sometimes falls in to that category of heavily edited material and sensationalism (along with other filmmakers like Nick Broomfield). And what's funny is that when you have such a slow moving target like George W. Bush (it's no mystery that Michael Moore spent close to a decade of his life going after GW), you don't need to rely on heavy editing. Just let the cameras go and Bush Jr. is bound to make himself look like the idiot he really is. 

Most political films these days have a left-leaning agenda (especially documentaries) so I'm surprised Donald Rumsfeld was so cooperative. What would make a major conservative figure like him open up to a filmmaker like Morris with a fan base of mostly liberals? Towards the end of the film, Morris, off camera, bluntly asks Rumsfeld; "why are you talking to me?" to which Rumsfeld responds; "...I don't know." I know we're only in May but that quick exchange may go down as one of my personal favorite movie moments of 2014. 
Whether you like him or not (I'm certainly not a fan), Donald Rumsfeld is an intriguing guy with plenty of stories to tell. He was right there when Gerald Ford was shot at, he was a onetime vice presidential candidate, he served as secretary of defense during two separate terms, Nixon described him as a "tough little bastard" and he was at the center of the abu ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. Like it or not, he’s a small part of America's political history. 

The Unknown Known is bound to draw some comparison to The Fog Of War (Morris' academy award winning doc about another secretary of defense; Robert McNamara). I have to give some credit to my friend Chris Funderberg as he made an immediate comparison (and contrast) between the two films after we saw it. Donald Rumsfeld is a far more interesting subject than McNamara. He's a complex guy. At some points in the documentary Rumsfeld comes off totally clueless and/or in denial about some of his missteps & blunders while at other points in the documentary he comes off as witty, intelligent and very calculated. 

I’m surprised I enjoyed The Unknown Known as much as I did. I'm pretty jaded & apathetic towards most films concerning the Bush Administration, 9/11 or the Iraq war (it's no mystery that Rumsfeld is synonymous with all those things). Between Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty & Hurt Locker), Oliver Stone (World Trade & W), the random guy who made Loose Change & Morgan Spurlock (Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden) all the life & energy has been sucked out of that subject matter to the point where I find myself sighing and rolling my eyes just hearing a synopsis of a film about anything Bush and/or 9/11-related. This must have been how baby boomer cinephiles felt with all the Vietnam war films still going on well in to the early 90's. It's like once Apocalypse Now came along there was really no reason to explore that territory anymore (with the exception of the first 45 minutes of Full Metal Jacket).
And what's worse is that all the films I listed earlier are either overrated (Fahrenheit & Zero Dark Thirty), "ok" I guess (The Hurt Locker), pointless (Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden) or just awful (World Trade Center & W). 
There's this unspoken thing with half of these films where Michael Moore, the loose change guy & Oliver Stone felt like their work was going to be impactful and they were going to "expose" Bush and everything/everyone associated with him. But it’s all over. With the exception of the mess that's still going on in Iraq (still a very relevant topic), all that stuff is over. Bush didn't get impeached and 9/11 wasn't a fucking inside job. Either find a new angle to attack (which Morris certainly did) or find new topics to make films about.
These days, the only post-9/11 cinema I can stomach is Team America: World Police and Hal Hartley's films of the late 90's-early 00's (which were actually made before the 9/11 attacks).

a reoccurring image on PINNLAND EMPIRE - An eerie image of the twin towers in Hal Hartley's The Book Of Life (1998)
Morris didn't really seem to have an agenda with Donald Rumsfeld (and if he did, he hid it pretty well). At no point in the documentary did I sense Morris was attacking his subject. He certainly drilled Rumsfeld with questions and lightly challenged him occasionally, but not in an attacking way. Instead, he makes Donald Rumsfeld seem like a normal guy. The Unknown Known is full of political insider jargon and the film spans every president Rumseld served under, from Nixon to Bush Jr., but its more about Rumsfeld the person. 
There are moments where Errol Morris does expose some of Rumsfeld's contradictions (like the confusion he & the Bush administration tried cloud the American people with when it came to making a case for going to war with Sadam Hussein instead of focusing Bin Laden) but that stuff felt secondary to me.

Errol Morris has faced a bit of criticism with The Unknown Known. Some people feel he didn't "grill" Rumsfeld hard enough on issues concerning war, torture practices and the weak reasons the Bush administration used to go to war with Iraq. But these criticisms bring me back to that jadedness I expressed earlier. We already know the reason Bush went to war was bullshit. Why do we need another film, book or exposé on the subject? What good is that honestly going to do now? It reminds me of how people like Tucker Carlson & Bill O'reilly criticized John Stewart for not grilling his political guests with tough questions (clearly they don't know The Daily Show is a fucking comedy show and not a real news source).

On a side note, I don't want the tone of what I'm writing to come off as completely apathetic. Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, GW and plenty more folks in office between 2000-2008 completely fucked us (Americans) over. I'm not asking anyone to forget. I hope every generation going forward questions & challenges those in power no matter how "cool" or progressive they may seem. But to still make films with the hope off exposing or shaking things up (which is clearly what political filmmakers want to do) seems irrelevant. You'd swear some filmmakers still thought Bush & Cheney were in office long after 2008.

As always, there's plenty of "Morris-isms" here that make his films what they are (quick awkward moments of silence from the interviewee, a few funny moments here & there and scenes that straddle the line between eerie stock footage and reenactments/moments of fiction).
I was surprised to see that Danny Elfman did the music for Morris this time around instead of Philip Glass. Between my gripe with popular film scores these days (specifically 12 Years A Slave) and the complete dismissal of film scores that are actually pushing the art forward (namely the work of Cliff Martinez & Shane Carruth) I'm quite sensitive to music used in film these days. The score for The Unknown Known could have been worse (and little less loud) but at the end of the day it wasn't too distracting like Elfman's traditional music for Tim Burton (it was actually reminiscent of the The Thin Blue Line score from time to time).

I honestly left the theater wondering what a guy like Donald Rumsfeld does on his personal/down time which is something I'd honestly never given thought to before. If you weren't a fan of Rumsfeld before, this film probably won't change your opinion, but The Unknown Known got me to think about this man on a human level which is an interesting angle to take in my opinion.


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