DIR: Errol Morris • PRO: Amanda Branson Gill, Robert Fernandez, Errol Morris • DOP: Robert Chappell • ED: Steven Hathaway • MUS: Danny Elfman • DES: Jeremy Landman • CAST: Kenn Medeiros, Errol Morris, Donald Rumsfeld
Errol Morris has a really remarkable way of getting people to open up on camera. In his debut The Thin Blue Line, he famously managed to record something that could well be a murder confession, helping lead to the release of the innocent Randall Dale Adams (who had been sentenced to life in prison). The Fog of War saw Morris ‘face off’ against former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. While McNamara didn’t necessarily ‘crack’, Morris managed to secure some startlingly and complex insights from his interviews with the man. Even in his 2010 film Tabloid – which is very purposefully a structurally tricky and playful affair that reminds the audience to be distrustful of individual testimonies – Morris ultimately manages to get his subject Joyce McKinney to make some memorably frank and intimate observations on camera (how much you believe them, of course, is up to you). Morris has even used the word ‘Interrotron’ to describe his trademark interview style of having his subjects talk directly to the camera – or is that the audience? – as if on trial.
The Interrotron is employed once again in The Unknown Known, with Morris turning the camera on another former Secretary of Defence. A two-time Secretary of Defence, in fact: Donald Rumsfeld. This time, however, Morris’ usual techniques make nary a dent in his interviewee’s armour. More often than not, questions are answered by Rumsfeld with a familiarly calculated response or enigmatic grin. When Morris – sometimes with genuine frustration and disbelief in his voice – attempts to push harder or presents Rumsfeld with a knowingly inflammatory query, the Washington veteran bats not a single eyelid as he shoots down the line of questioning or effortlessly defuses Morris’ enquiries.
Conclusions on how compelling a documentary this elusiveness makes is likely to differ from viewer to viewer. The Unknown Known lacks the surprises and fresh insights that have defined many great documentaries, much of Morris’ own work included. That’s one of the things about making any documentary: you don’t know what the results will be until you’re near the end of making it, with many changing shape radically over the course of production. If Morris was hoping Rumsfeld would reveal something controversial or even drop his charismatic public persona, he may well have been severely disappointed.
That, however, would be dismissive of what is a fascinating film in different ways. Rumsfeld might be an expert deflector, but his story is a great one. After all, this is a man who held one of the most influential positions in Washington during Watergate, the Cold War, 9/11 and the beginnings of the Afghan / Iraq wars. It’s a compelling political and personal story, full of twists and turns – at one point, he casually observes that under very slightly different circumstances, he could have been President or Vice-President of America. He worked over Dick Cheney, for example, when he was Gerald Ford’s Chief of Staff – indeed, it was seemingly Cheney’s recommendation that got Rumsfeld a prize position in George W. Bush’s cabinet. Obviously, little regret is expressed over his ultimate life and career trajectory – this is a man not hung up on what might have been.
This all makes for a very strong character study. The elusiveness, so frustrating in some respects, is curious in others. Here is a man who has been instrumental in some of the biggest and most controversial decisions in contemporary history, and has been quizzed about them hundreds of times (the footage of his press conferences are highlights here). He is able to personally justify or critique all his decisions – in fact, even if you don’t agree with his actions, there are times here when you won’t fail to be impressed by his persuasiveness and raw charisma. He’s, above all, a powerful screen presence, able to own and even manipulate the camera to his advantage.
Morris, for his part, adds a few interesting flourishes to ensure it’s not all Rumsfeld’s face for 100 minutes. There’s lots of archive footage, naturally. There’s a Danny Elfman score that’s at times more like his Batman work than your typical documentary soundtrack – I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. There’s also frequent shots of empty sea, culminating in the launch of a dodgy CGI rocket that would have been best left excised. More interesting are the structural ideas, most intriguingly the way Morris repeatedly bases questions or loose ‘chapters’ of the film on Rumsfeld’s tens of thousands of memos to his Pentagon colleagues. From reflections on international tensions to requesting dictionary definitions of words like ‘quagmire’, they’re a further unusual insight into the man’s working and communication methods. It also serves as a way of highlighting the strange bureaucracy of Washington – a segment on the torture in Guantanamo Bay and other POW prisons sees Rumsfeld explaining it away as a series of miscommunications, misinterpreted documents and misunderstandings of the chain of command.
On a couple of occasions, Morris leaves the camera linger for a few extended moments on Rumsfeld’s face after he artfully deflects a particularly contentious question. Morris is clearly under the impression that this man has many things to hide, but there’s not a chance he’s giving them up. Perhaps we will never know what’s really going on in Donald Rumsfeld’s head, but gazing into the face of the unknowable holds its own unique appeal.
The Unknown Known is released on 21st March 2014