Take a Drink: for each masterpiece of doublespeak
Take a Drink: whenever Rumsfield worms out of a question
Take a Drink: for each new memo
Take a Drink: for definitions
Take a Drink: whenever Rumsfield literally or figuratively dodges a bullet
Do a Shot: whenever Morris undercuts what Rumsfield says with the perfect videoclip
Do a Shot: “Thanks”
By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
In 2003, renowned documentarian Errol Morris sat down with one of the most controversial men of the 20th century, a powerful force behind multiple presidential administrations, and a key factor in the proliferation of Eisenhower’s all too prescient, long-warned military/industrial complex. His profile of Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, yielded some startlingly self-aware and emotional insights into the personality and regrets of this notorious figure, and is widely hailed as one of the finest documentaries ever made. In 2013, he tried it again.
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The Unknown Known interviews, and attempts to understand the motivations and influence of Donald Rumsfield, former U.S. Department of Defense Secretary under Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, and a principal inciter and defender of “The War on Terror” and the unholy mess that is the Iraq conflict.
Before we even get into what Morris accomplishes here, you have to toast that The Unknown Known is perhaps his most polished product, a culmination of his eccentric, Interrotron-enabled style, and full of beautiful symbolic interludes and imagery. It’s sharp-looking and well-scored by Danny Elfman, who may not be Philip Glass, but turns in a reasonable facsimile of his usual Errol Morris-supporting work.
Donald Rumsfield is a suitably compelling subject as well, but in a very different way from Robert McNamara, or most of Morris’s other subjects. Don’t go into this expecting Ah ha! moments, big reveals, or grand mea culpas. Rumsfield spent years staring down the White House Press Corps- Interrotron ain’t shit to him.
Come at me, bro.
What we do get is a more nuanced look at a man so consumed by his brand of doublespeak that he’s losing track of it. He’s built verbal castles, like the oxymoronic title, that, as he proves in the end, he can’t even escape from, all in an effort to justify measures he suspects he can’t. We can’t say we get to know the man, but we do get an understanding of his defense mechanisms and his justification strategies, and by extension an entire administration’s as well.
While the lack of revelations isn’t a major detriment, it’s difficult to walk away from this film without thinking that Rumsfield won this round- and it really sucks to give him that satisfaction. He’s a master deflector, and all this film establishes in the end about him is that he’s one slippery bastard.
We hear Errol Morris’s voice here more than any of his documentaries I can remember, often taking a contentious tone or laughing in disbelief in response to Rumsfield, or adding questions to provoke a response from him. You get the sense that he’s as frustrated by Rumsfield’s refusal to be pinned down as we are, and is being drawn out of his usual calm, cerebral approach by this frustration.
Plus, he totally sounds like Penn Jillette
The Unknown Known is an engrossing portrait of one of the most controversial, duplicitous figures of recent American history, but he successful resists all efforts to delve any deeper than that.