REVIEW: The Unknown Known

28 06 2014

The Unknown KnownMost great documentaries about political malfeasance features countless interviews with academics and reporters, the majority of whom are extremely knowledgeable about the topic.  Yet rarely do you see direct participants sit down and talk with filmmakers about their role in the events.  (We can thank their cautious PR people, worried of a negative soundbite in a nonstop news cycle.)

None of the big names in the financial crisis, on Wall Street or in Washington, sat down for “Inside Job.”  (Prominent decliners are even listed on the film’s website.)  SeaWorld didn’t talk to the makers of “Blackfish.”  Yet for some odd reason, Donald Rumsfeld actually faced off with documentarian Errol Morris in an extensive interview that forms the backbone of “The Unknown Known.”  Yes, the man with his hands in the cookie jar during events from Watergate to the war in Iraq agreed to sit down with a documentarian whose work has literally gotten someone off Death Row.

The very fact that “The Unknown Known” exists is dumbfounding in and of itself.  Rumsfeld is no idiot, and he surely must have realized that the film was not going to be some puff piece to exonerate him in the annals of history.  In fact, it was more likely to be a hatchet job than anything.

Morris, however, does not indulge all those who would love nothing more than to have the documentary serve as an unofficial trial for war crimes.  He largely lets Rumsfeld spin his own narrative, occasionally interjecting with objections or pointed questions.  At least from what we see, Morris and Rumsfeld never engage in an all-out shouting match like you’d see on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known

Instead, it’s something more consistently fascinating to watch.  “The Unknown Known” is like a verbal cat-and-mouse game between Morris and Rumsfeld, an exciting high-wire where the stakes are massive for both the subject and the interviewer.  It ultimately works out quite well for both parties.  Rumsfeld gets the chance to tell his story as he would like it recorded, while Morris gets the chance to react and prod him to go deeper in real time.

It’s a tremendous battle of wits, one that’s incredibly exciting to watch play out.  Morris, crucially, isn’t interested in huge revelations but rather in small cracks that reveal the underlying psychology that might explain Rumsfeld.  The former Secretary of Defense doesn’t make it easy in the interview, keeping his guard up at all times and having relatively airtight answers for just about everything.

People can disagree with how Rumsfeld acted, but it’s hard to claim he’s some kind of idiot after watching “The Unknown Known.” He spells out his philosophy with some pretty thought-provoking maxims, which include proverbs like “belief in the inevitability of conflict can become on of its main causes.”  Or perhaps more strikingly, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”

Rumsfeld has quite the steel trap of a mind, evinced by countless memos he left behind.  This paper trail is quite fortuitous for historians who will be looking to further understand the period, although it makes it pretty easy to press Rumsfeld in person.  Still, he presses right back, making “The Unknown Known” a sparring worth tuning in to watch.  I can’t think of another documentary where the mechanics of its execution are as interesting as the content it portrays.  B+3stars


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