Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said in a White House Press conference, misquoting Hamlet, “Something’s neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.” Swap ‘thinking’ for ‘talking’ and you’ve got old Don’s life motto. Errol Morris’ new documentary The Unknown Known focuses on this curiously beguiling, enigmatic, abhorrent man and his stories, not necessarily the events detailed within them, but the ways in which he speaks of them, framed by an air of existential incredulity typical of previous Morris efforts. Where Herzog engages with ‘ecstatic truth’, I would say the Morris attitude is one of ‘ecstatic absurdity’. The film, built around interviews recorded over 30 hours, is another paradoxically stylized and simple package from the master documentarian, equally packed with laudable historical rigour and brilliant visual indulgences. The film never comes close to boring, and the weight of moral implication never lifts, no matter how long Rumsfeld talks.
It is almost impossible to separate this film from previous Morris works tonally, so unique is the Morris mood it almost demands its own genre. Barrel down interviews, speaking directly to the audience. Curious characters whose own absurdity is apparently only obvious to us. Jarring continuous cuts and oblique angles within the same frame. A rousing but subtle score, usually by Philip Glass, in this case, serviceably offered by Danny Elfman. A distinct visualization of text, particularly within original historical documents. Visualizations of concepts proffered moments earlier. This final example is one of the most striking in the film, as Rumsfeld’s references to his multitudes of memos, or ‘snowflakes’, are accompanied throughout the film with shots of falling snowflakes and extreme closeups of upturned snowglobes. It’s an idea that might seem glib on paper but Morris manages to make it work, imbuing the images, sounds and sentences with greater meaning in their assimilation of each other. Continued use of oceans, though initially jarring, also gradually accumulates greater meaning, in a final moment visualizing the vast, formless abyss of Rumsfeld’s speech.
It is most important however to discuss Morris’ talking head interviews which really are one of a kind, both in content and image. Though largely attributable to Morris’ well-developed interrogation style, honed in thousands of interviews over a number of decades, what remains so striking about them is the visual quality, the intense barrel down stare of his subjects, as they intermittently justify themselves, designate blame and lay themselves bare, bounding between defense, attack and surrender. This odd balance of cold and personal, arch and vulnerable can be wholly attributed to Morris’ invention and use of the interrotron in interviews. The interrotron basically uses teleprompters to project live video feeds over two cross connected cameras, and as such, interviewer and interviewee maintain eye contact with each other via teleprompters, while also staring down the barrel of the camera. This contradiction of tangible human contact and the otherness of a video image, given the person is metres away, both affects the interview and typifies Morris’ gaze, intimately engaged with and distanced from his subjects. It’s also very interesting applying this gaze to Rumsfeld, someone who can so easily spark and diffuse hatred with the same deft twitch of speech.
The most important consideration of Rumsfeld by Morris cannot be undertaken without placing him alongside two previous Morris subjects: Mr Death’s executioner-cum-Holocaust denier Fred A. Leuchter and The Fog of War’s Secretary of Defense-cum-tortured soul Robert S McNamara. Comparisons with the 2004 Oscar-winning The Fog of War are both inescapable and important. Robert S. McNamara served as a military advisor under Truman and the Secretary of Defense in the JFK and LBJ administrations. In recalling incendiary bombing in Japan, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, McNamara barely stops short of self-identifying as a ‘war criminal’. There are no buts about it, McNamara, rightly so, is reflective, he is tortured, he is the image of self-doubt. Rumsfeld couldn’t be further from it. Where Rumsfeld distinguishes himself is not just in his profound sense of self-importance, but also in his inability to change and his delusional insistence that everything he did, under Ford and especially under Bush, was justified, worthwhile and effective. To see how comfortable he is with all the rubbish he spouts about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib is just confusing. How proud he is of Iraq and Afghanistan is unfathomable.
It is telling that Rumsfeld saw The Fog of War, hated it and immediately agreed to do The Unknown Known. He is a glib, pathetic, charming, meretricious twat, begging to be regarded as an absurd curiousity. Morris is only too happy to oblige. By the end of the film, you get the sense Morris feels he has failed. In his other films, his subjects crack or have some kind of reflection. Rumsfeld can’t do it. He doesn’t believe he has a mask on. His mask has become his face. And he looks like an idiot. But it is fascinating.
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