By Daumoun Khakpour
About two-thirds into The Unknown Known, former Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, starts to break down, while recollecting a visit to the hospital bed of a gravely-injured soldier who had just returned from Iraq. This fleeting moment is the first point where we have a glimmer of sincerity, honesty, and regret. However, this soon washes over like the many literal waves woven into the film, and Mr. Rumsfield goes back to being hollow, and without true depth; an entity there to infuriate the audience.
The Unknown Known, by master documentary film maker Errol Morris, acts as a companion piece to his previous documentary, Fog of War. While the latter won universal acclaim and numerous awards due to its very intelligent, aware, and remorseful subject, Robert McNamara – another former Secretary of Defense, this film fails to live up to its predecessor. This is not because of a lack of trying from the production team — the wall to wall music of Danny Elfman is a pitch-perfect companion to Robert Chappall’s gorgeous cinematography and shot composition, and all of this wouldn’t be possible without Errol Morris’ incredible interview techniques and his masterful awareness of pacing. It is the subject matter that clips the wings of a film soaring for loftier expectations. Donald Rumsfeld refuses to acknowledge or address anything that would earn him any merit; he is full of contradictions, empty statements, and philosophy that is as deep as a pothole pond. He adds nothing of substance, and the film’s most intriguing and captivating scenes are the events at the beginning of his political career. These scenes, detailing Rumsefeld as Secretary of Defence for George W. Bush, are nothing new or interesting; just a series of memos further asserting how truly terrifying it is that this man, Bush, was one of the few individuals in charge of the most technically advanced and funded armies in history.
Because of the weaknesses in subject matter outlined above, the documentary lacks a punch and most forms of resonation. It merely seems to exist to give Donald Rumsfeld the chance to annoy and exasperate people; an impression that comes out in the Q&A where Mr. Morris himself seems fed up with his subject and seems almost resigned to have done the most he could do. But, disappointment aside, if you are a fan of Errol Morris, the music of Danny Elfman and of some extremely well-done cinematography (more fit for a fiction narrative then a documentary), you could probably do worse than The Unknown Known; just make sure to go in with your expectations in check.
Daumoun Khakpour is Contributing Editor for Film for the magazine.