Errol Morris’ “interrotron” — his famous device for filming interview subjects by letting the camera gaze directly into the subject’s eyes — produced incisive, even devastating results in his 2003 “The Fog of War.”
In that documentary, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sat for a thorough examination by Morris into his role in the decision-making behind the Vietnam war.
The process doesn’t work the same magic in “The Unknown Known,” a much less successful attempt to get another former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to open up about the shabby thinking behind the Bush Administration’s Iraq adventure.
At least two things relating to these men were much different. In the former film, McNamara, after decades of heavy thinking on the topic, was ready to issues a mea culpa. It’s unclear that Rumsfeld has even done heavy thinking on any topic in his life. Instead he issues memos.
Second, “The Fog of War” had a much narrower focus. While it did range over the entire governmental career of McNamara, its main goal was the thinking that led the U.S. into the quagmire that was Vietnam.
“The Unknown Known” is far more wide ranging, covering not just the subject’s service to the Bush Administration but his entire career in Washington.
This takes in the former navy man and congressman’s roles in the Nixon White House, his first go-round as Defense Secretary (the youngest ever) for President Ford, his serving as special envoy in the Middle East and the near thing of his being selected as running mate with Ronald Reagan during the latter’s successful bid for the White House.
Only a political junkie would get off on all this inside-the-Beltway history and gossip.
Morris is never able to penetrate that Cheshire Cat smile of Rumsfeld’s. What seems to preoccupy the former politico, aside from his blizzard of memos that were eventually dubbed “snow flakes” by subordinates, are the definitions of words and phrases.
At first this seems like a quaint affectation, the muddled obsession of a middlebrow who enjoys word play such as his definitions of the “known unknowns,” “known knowns” and “unknown knowns,” from which the movie takes its title.
The latter is defined, for instance, as “things you think you know but turns out you do not.” Got it? Don’t worry, only Rumsfeld seems to.
Gradually as he continues to mull over the nature of definitions — Rumsfeld uses the Pentagon’s dictionary not any standard work, by the way — his obsession grows clearer.
If he can control the definitions of words and phrases, he can control any issue. So as to whether the Bush Administration deliberately “deceived” the American public into believing that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with 9/11 or whether “enhanced interrogations” ever took place, these issues can be defined away with word play.
If you get to define the meanings of things, you can forever avert blame. True, Rumsfeld is occasionally tripped up by Morris when confronted with his own words or facts he cannot so easily define away.
But during the film’s entire 96 minutes he never takes any blame for misjudgments or poor leadership. He remains firmly in command of his own definitions and double thinking. No mea culpa here.
When asked what lessons one can learn from America’s catastrophic failure in Vietnam, he shrugs and offers this: “Some things work out. Some things don’t.” That’s the lesson of Vietnam?
When played a clip from a press conference in which he declared that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction without any doubt, he can only say that this was “not accurate.”
Not accurate? Well, yes, it wasn’t accurate.
When the scandal of the Abu Ghraib prison broke, a DOD scandal on his watch, in other words, Rumsfeld twice offered handwritten letters of resignation to President Bush, according to him. (And the movie does show these).
He goes so far here to say that he now wishes Bush had accepted the second letter of resignation. As it was, he twisted in the wind for many more months before Bush essentially did fire him.
But in none of this, or in any other areas of his long career, does Rumsfeld exhibit an ability to examine the decision-making process or to analyze anything at all deeply. Instead he falls back on word play and reading his own memos while Morris himself repeats many of the points and even a few images from his Abu Ghraib prison film, “Standard Operating Procedure.”
So the movie frustrates you as Morris seems to pick up the bad habit of his subject — tedious repetition — and for his own penchant for throwing up on the screen dictionary definitions of words Rumsfeld utters, words such as “fantastic” and “brutal.” What’s the point of that?
To take one’s mind off this dull treading of water, Danny Elfman contributes a pulsating, portentous score as if the film were building to a climax it never attains.
“The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Rumsfeld declares, this being his response to whole question of the WMDs no one in the intelligence community could clearly point to in the lead-up to the Iraq war. In the case of Rumsfeld though, the absence of self-reflection is indeed evidence of a kind of absence of thought.
This then is the film’s redeeming feature: It illustrates how scary non-thinking can be in the highest circles of American policy making and how disastrous decisions can get buried under a blizzard of memos and meaningless word play.
Opens: December 6, 2013 (Radius TWC)
Production companies: Moxie Pictures, History Films, Participant Media
Director: Errol Morris
Producers: Errol Morris, Robert Fernandez, Amanda Branson Gill
Executive producers: Dick Hoogstra, Julian P. Hobbs, Molly Thompson, Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Tom Quinn, Jason Janego, Josh Braun, Celia Taylor, Angus Wall, Julia Sheehan
Director of photography: Robert Chappell
Production designers: Ted Bafaloukas, Jeremy Landman
Music: Danny Elfman
Editor: Steven Hathaway
PG-13 rating, 96 minutes