There are real life personalities that feel like they have been plucked out of the twisted imagination of a writer instead of existing in reality; former U.S Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is more Emperor Palpatine than a real man; or so I may have imagined prior to Errol Morris' fascinating documentary The Unknown Known. It will have you reappraising everything you've come to understand about one of most influential politicians of the 20th century.
Using an archive of memos spanning a career of nearly forty years, the interrogative force of Morris sits before the now retired Rumsfeld to dive into the most contentious periods of his career. The interview spans his days as a congressman in the early 1960s all the way until the U.S war on terror bled into Iraq in 2003.
Morris has taken the concept of the talking head documentary to refined heights with a singular subject. The array of differing angles and the way that they're toggled between to never allow the subject, in this case a singular and slippery subject in Rumsfeld, to escape. The agenda is set early on that Morris is going to give Rumsfeld enough rope, in the form of this veritable cornucopia of memos to dig beneath the public facade. Instead, throughout this extremely long and enduring career through multiple administrations you begin to appreciate his diplomatic skill, his astute understanding of the geopolitical quicksand of the Middle East. One memo actually refers to the entire region as "The Swamp" because once entered, it would be nigh impossible to leave. Morris doesn't pull any punches in his approach and Rumsfeld doesn't avoid lines of questioning. He maneuvers with a heightened awareness of the implications of some of Morris semantic phrasing, especially around the hard facts of the lack of weapons of mass destruction, but ultimately there's a respect and openness.
The aesthetic digressions from the questioning that occasionally morph into Morris’ imaginings of forthcoming revelatory moments start to get weirdly underpinned with Danny Elfman's inescapably quirky, ‘Tim Burton’ musical style. The film is at its most powerful in the pauses between questions, or watching Rumsfeld reading his memos and recounting those thought processes.
The Unknown Known doesn't paint Rumsfeld into the Shakespearean archetype that Morris intended; instead he toed the company line. This documentary has Rumsfeld winning on points.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Director: Errol Morris
Writer: Errol Morris
Stars: Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris