Fri April 11, 2014

'The Unknown Known' Shows The Obscuring Power Of Words

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has addressed subjects that range from the owners of pet cemeteries to innocent men in prison to a murder case in which the only witness was a talking parrot. Morris’s new film is his second about men who have taken America into questionable wars.

KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz examines the "brilliant, unsettling" documentary 'The Unknown Known' for Morning Edition.

The Unknown Known begins with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld facing the camera performing one of his well-known linguistic dances. He talks about known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns and unknown knowns. Rumsfeld, a legendary writer of memos estimates that while at the Pentagon he wrote about 20,000 memos, and over a million in his other government jobs. The film then moves through a narrow canyon in the immense vertical shelves of a document archive to make palpable just how a million or so stored memos might look. And then the movie rests on a long look at an ocean, huge and bluish, the kind of emptiness that lets you contemplate in tranquility the immensity of Donald Rumsfeld’s memo-writing.

"It's not that Donald Rumsfeld is a man of words, as in a great orator; instead he's a guy who pours words out into the world, and all they do is obscure or hide whatever it is he's thinking."

Rumsfeld ran the second Iraq war under President George W. Bush, the war we started on the proclaimed certainty that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Rumsfeld is fond of pithy, often enigmatic phrases to sum up ideas. Much of the time, though, those little nuggets of language don’t explain much of anything, and some are beyond astonishing. At a news conference before the war started, a reporter points out to Rumsfeld that Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein was insisting that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons. Rumsfeld shoots back, “And Abraham Lincoln was short,” a sarcastic evasion that might be entertaining at a cocktail party, but doesn’t go very far when that kind of statement is used to take this country into war. And, as we soon knew, the claim wasn’t true.         

Errol Morris may be the most imaginative maker of non-fiction films in the world, but the work looks simple. Like many of his movies, The Unknown Known is mostly an interview done largely in close-up, but Morris’s camera picks up telling nuances of gesture and expression. The film doesn’t cut away from Rumsfeld’s face until after he shows his characteristic grin, and as the shots hold, you see how cold Rumsfeld’s aspect can be, and that the grins give off a stunning sense of self-satisfaction. There’s not a hint of warmth in the eyes or the mouth, and you get no feeling for what may lie beyond the empty look, or beneath it.

Errol Morris and Donald Rumsfeld in 'The Unknown Known.'
Credit Nubar Alexanian / courtesy of RADiUS-TWC

In his films – like The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Standard Operating Procedure or The Fog of War, Morris tries to look inside his subjects, to see what kinds of ideas or beliefs, past experiences or fictions drive people to do what they do. With Rumsfeld, Morris finds nothing. The film shows Rumsfeld quotes in newspapers, shots of memos or sometimes just words floating around the film image. It’s not that Donald Rumsfeld is a man of words, as in a great orator; instead he’s a guy who pours words out into the world, and all they do is obscure or hide whatever it is he’s thinking. The film often repeats the image of the sea, but by the end of the movie the sea is made up of countless words.

This is the second picture Errol Morris has made with a former Secretary of Defense who conducted a disastrous war. The Fog of War, from 2003, is about Robert MacNamara and his war in Vietnam – and in terms of sheer body count, MacNamara has a lot more blood on his hands than Donald Rumsfeld. But while MacNamara spent many years in the kind of self-examination that few human beings have the nerve for, Rumsfeld admits to no mistakes. Rumsfeld talks about waiting for the Iraqis to act rationally; MacNamara says he had failed to realize that the Vietnamese had a different frame of reference from ours – and that caused a lot of deaths. At the end of The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld says he has no idea why he agreed to do the film. Hollow people are scary, and so is this brilliant, unsettling movie.


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