January 22, 2018

Posted April 12, 2014 by D. K. Holm

Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known  could be viewed as the third leg in a trilogy about war and remembrance, or the second film in a series on the war in Iraq and it’s policymakers, or it could be viewed as Version Six of his Interrotron technique, Morris’s technical set up by which interviewer and analysand can look each other in the eyes while also gazing into the camera lens. In this case it is an interrogation of Donald Rumsfeld, co-architect of the war in Iraq under George W Bush. It’s about 90 minutes of Rumsfeld lightly sparring with Morris over the minutia of English language articles, nouns, and verbs as he evades any substantive reply to Morris’s occasionally audible questions. I’m not sure if this is a movie that one needs to drive out and pay to see in the theater. It’s really more of a very minor TV broadcast, both because of its lack of substance but also because of its cinematic obviousness. As usual, Morris illustrates the words someone utters literally. If an interviewee or talking head mentions the A-Bomb, we must see archive footage of an A-Bomb exploding. Worse, though, Morris doesn’t give us a head-to-head conflict between himself and his opponent. There is something to be said for allowing Rumsfeld to more or less hang himself (though many Americans would like to do that for him) Still, one wants to see the man put on the spot. For that, one must turn to the New York Times Opinionator web page where Morris published a four-part-series of his post-film reflections on Rumsfeld’s personality and techniques of manipulation. But a larger question intervenes, and that is the efficacy of these forms of interrogations in the first place. Morris’s The Fog of War, a highly praised documentary featuring Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense under Lyndon Johnson and co-architect of the Vietnam war, today seems essentially misunderstood. Fog offers McNamara a platform for confession and absolution but, watched carefully, in the film he doesn’t show much in the way of the kind of public regret that Americans have come to expect from news broadcasts and – especially – television talk shows. McNamara doesn’t really repudiate any of his decisions for moral reasons, and arguably he caused much more trouble and despair in his subsequent role as the head of the World Bank. This is a point made by the late Alexander Cockburn at the time of the McNamara film’s original release. In the end, The Known Unknown preaches only to the converted, with a side benefit to potential future war criminals as an instruction manual in easeful evasion.