The Unknown Known
Errol Morriss' examination of Donald Rumsfeld lacks nuance and depth
The veteran documentarian Errol Morris here turns his penetrating gaze upon Donald Rumsfeld, Defence Secretary under Gerald Ford and George W Bush. Comparisons are inevitable with Morris’ 2003 Oscar-winner The Fog of War, for which he interviewed Vietnam-era Defence Secretary Robert McNamara; but Rumsfeld is a very different subject, and the film less effective as a result.
If McNamara was prepared to engage in a degree of self-analysis regarding the costs of his policy decisions, and indeed seemed rather appreciative of the opportunity to do so, Rumsfeld comes across as an intellectual and emotional dead end, a person devoid of either the inclination to interrogate events which he helped shape or any sense of why others might do so. Is he genuinely as flat as he seems, a robot powered simple by the conviction that America ought to be in charge of stuff? Or is he smarter than that, and simply getting a kick out of not letting Morris in?
His pedantic insistence on sending people dictionary definitions of words suggests the former; but either way, the film fails to achieve much beyond its titular assertion (drawn from one of Rumsfeld’s famously convoluted public utterances) that some people are hard to fathom. His refusal to accept or even discuss contentions that challenge his view of history (such as the possibility that Iraq and Afghanistan were conflated and confused in American minds post-9/11, or the relationship between the legalisation of enhanced interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib) is revealing of a near-psychotic self-assurance, but doesn’t make for a very nuanced or enlightening film.
And the bombastic trappings Morris favours – a Danny Elfman score, graphics illustrating the blizzard of Rumsfeld’s endless written memos – serve to emphasise rather than conceal the emptiness at the film’s heart.
Limited release from Fri 21 Mar.