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Saturday, April 16, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2013)

11. The Unknown Known

One of the purposes of Director Report Cards is finding the reoccurring themes and trademarks of different filmmakers. This, sometimes, has me finding patterns that maybe don’t exist. Let me propose the following: In the new millennia, Errol Morris made a thematic trilogy about war and its effect. This cycle began with “The Fog of War,” continued with “Standard Operating Procedure,” and concluded with 2013’s “The Unknown Known.” (This is assuming Morris doesn’t make another movie about war, ruining my little pet theory here.) In many ways, “The Unknown Known” is a companion piece to “The Fog of War.” In both, Morris interviews a Secretary of Defense. But the War in Iraq was a very different conflict then the Vietnam War and Donald Rumsfield is a very different man then Robert McNamara. Thus, the resulting films are totally different beasts

“The Unknown Known” is focused on Donald Rumsfield, the controversial Secretary of Defense during the Nixon, Ford, and – most pointedly – the George W. Bush years. In between reading some of the countless memos Rumsfield wrote during his tenure, Errol Morris attempts to get some answer out of the contentious historical figure. Rumsfield, however, does not cooperate smoothly.

From its title on down, “The Unknown Known” is fascinated with Rumsfield's circular figures of speech. The film begins with an excerpt from its title lending speech, where Rumsfield laid out one of his clear philosophy in an especially contrived manner. Rumsfield talks like that often. Just as frequently, he interlaces weirdly folksy figures of speech into serious conversations. Eccentric characters often pop up in Morris’ films. I wish I could say the director brought that out of a former Secretary of Defense. Instead, Rumsfield genuinely is a kind of weird guy. The film often shows archive footage of Rumsfield’s notorious press conferences. Here, it becomes even more clear how Rumsfield’s slightly obnoxious, oddly compelling personality made him the face of the Iraq War.

Comparisons between “The Fog of War” and “The Unknown Known” are inevitable. Robert McNamara gave a thoughtful, intimate interview that exposed his humanity and had him talking frankly about war. Rumsfield, on the other hand, might as well be one of the unknowns of the title. He smiles, in a fake, extended way. As if he’s disguising his true thoughts or feelings. He often dispel the probing questions. Rumsfield is all business. The only time ol’ Don ever gives us a glimpse at his inner humanity is during a brief discussion about his wife. He cries later but they’re tears of joy and don’t seem entirely sincere. Unlike McNamara, Rumsfield never discusses the frank horrors of war. He’s not willing to admit that the Iraq War was a mess, that the U.S. government acted wrongly, that he ever made any mistakes. Rumsfield is evasive and closed-off.

Which does not make “The Unknown Known” the most revealing of interviews. Instead, Morris had to build the film around Rumsfield’s unwillingness to discuss his mistakes. Usually, Errol Morris doesn’t insert himself into his own films much. In his earliest movies, he was entirely silent. As his career advanced, occasionally Morris would let himself ask a question on camera. In “The Unknown Known,” Morris can often been heard asking queries. This is a natural result of Rumsfield being so damn shifty. As Rumsfield delivers another answer without truly answering the question, Morris often shouts back in a bemused manner. When asked about the missing Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Rumsfield sticks to his story. When asked about torture being used on detainees and suspects, he denies all knowledge. Sometimes, Rumsfield even outright lies, ignoring documents he signed himself. Despite his best efforts, Errol can’t get much out of this guy.

A particular note of interest is Donald Rumsfield’s obsessive note taking. The topic recurs throughout the film. Early on, he refers to the “snowflakes,” the little white slips of paper that he wrote memos on. An early shot shows the slips falling from the sky, visibly illustrating how many of the damn things Rumsfield produced. He makes frequent references to speaking notes into a handheld tape recorder. Donald’s outside image is precise. His habit of writing everything down, of constantly sending people his thoughts and ideas, supports this. Richard Nixon’s habit of recording everything is brought up at one point. Rumsfield’s constant note-writing does not seem like a dissimilar habit.

As a biography, Rumsfield’s unwillingness to open up forces Morris to stick totally to his professional career. His rise through the ranks during the Nixon administration are briefly summarized. This time frame ends with a recording of Nixon and Henry Kissenger making it clear that neither care much for Rumsfield on a personal level. During his time under Gerard Ford, Rumsfield gives an interesting anecdote about Ford hitting his head in an elevator. Later that same day, Ford was almost assassinated, which made the bruise on his forehead seem a lot less important. His response to the so-called “Halloween Massacre” is interesting, as he braces against such a negative phrase. He speaks of his exit from the government after Carter’s election in equally brief terms.

Morris actually works backwards, touching upon Rumsfield’s work during the War on Terror earlier in the film. His description of being inside the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 aren’t exactly visceral. Even while talking about intense, violent situation, Rumsfield holds back and re-steers the conversation. His thoughts on Saddam Hussein seem strangely manufactured. Even while talking to him during a diplomatic meeting in the eighties, Rumsfield talks about the dictator being evil. Of course, Saddam was a bad guy. But Rumsfield’s answer is rehearsed, planned. When directly quizzed about Iraq, Abu Gharbi, or Weapons of Mass Destruction, he deflects more. All the while, he smiles and chuckles, never getting at the truth.

Returning from “Standard Operating Procedure,” Danny Elfman’s contributes another score. The music features far more of Elfman’s trademarks. He makes heavy use of willowy choirs, whimsical strings and mournful oboes. Yet the music still feels like it belongs to a Errol Morris movie, focusing just as much on building piano cords and repeating melodies. At times, the soundtrack is oddly up-beat, matching Rumsfield’s misleading exterior. Elfman, of course, lets the music go to darker places, when the subject of terrorism and torture come up. There’s a mysterious quality to the music that doesn’t sacrifice the beauty of the melodies. It suits the film extremely well and is a pretty good piece of music by itself.

“The Unknown Known” is frustrating but how could it be any other way? Those expecting a similar interview to “The Fog of War” will definitely be disappointed. Instead, “The Unknown Known” becomes an examination of obfuscation. It’s as much about a deceptive and contentious historical figure rewriting events to suit his needs as it is about the Iraq War. Errol Morris asks reasonable questions and Donald Rumsfield, more often then not, gives confusing, double-speak-and-mixed-metaphor filled answers. Combined with Morris’ sharp visuals and Elfman’s solid score, “The Unknown Known” remains a compelling film. Look into Rumsfield’s eyes, watch him lie, and try to figure out how much of anything he says is true. [Grade: B]

Errol Morris has been trying to get another narrative film made for some time. "Freezing People is Easy," a promising sounding comedy about cryonics meant to star Paul Rudd and Christopher Walken, nearly came together before disappearing. More recently, Morris was attached to direct "Holland, Michigan," a true crime based thriller starring Bryan Cranston. This too has yet to roll into active production. I'd really love to see either of these movies. It's still obvious to me that Morris has a great narrative film inside him. Hopefully, such a project will get made that day. Until then, Morris has been keeping busy with short documentary films for ESPN. I imagine another documentary feature will materialize in time. I look forward to whatever that movie may be.

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