The title of Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known (now in theatres and also on demand) comes from former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous/notorious classification of information deficiencies – things we know we don’t know, things we think we know but actually don’t, and so forth. Morris got Rumsfeld to sit down for over thirty hours of interviews, condensed down in the film into a little more than an hour and a half, reviewing the span of his political career (including various roles under Nixon and Ford) but of course concentrating primarily on his last political stand, as defense secretary for most of George W Bush’s presidency, and a prime actor in all that came after 9/11/01.
The Unknown Known
Writing in The New Yorker, Richard Brody calls the film “a masterwork of political epistemology and dialectical jujitsu,” adding that “Morris reconstructs the mentalities of power and reveals the crucial political importance of character and judgment – and quietly despairs.” Regarding the latter point though: to whom should it be a revelation that character and judgment are vital in politics, and that they’re in increasingly short supply? And I’m not sure the film particularly supports the point anyway – by normal measures, Rumsfeld has enough substance, presence and experience for ten run-of-the-mill politicians, and look where it got us. You’d be better off switching the point around and saying the film reveals the folly of relying on apparent indicators of character in choosing our elected representatives (to take the obvious local example, Rob Ford’s bull-headedness and insistence on his own view of the world is a prime indication of character as the term is often applied, politically speaking).
This is just one example of the slipperiness of trying to extract clear meaning from Morris’ film, which of course perfectly indicates Brody’s first point about the dialectical jujitsu. Rumsfeld’s press conferences were prime Washington events for a while (winning him a reported status as an elder sex symbol) for his willingness to engage with the questions put to him, and his artful self-portrayal as a grand synthesis of battlefield titan and philosopher king. The film’s title evokes this period, one when Washington (and for the most part, it seems, the press) were convinced of the general righteousness of the war in Iraq, while also struggling to control both the reality and the narrative. During this period, Rumsfeld fretted about the definitions of such terms as “insurgency” and “unconventional warfare” in describing the reality on the ground, and found innumerable ways to insist on the one hand that one shouldn’t believe what one saw (for example that footage of chaos on the streets wasn’t necessarily representative of the bigger picture of largely peaceful liberation) and on the other hand that one shouldn’t believe what one didn’t see (that the failure to find weapons of mass destruction didn’t mean they didn’t exist). Given Rumsfeld’s happy immersion in such rationalizations (or if you prefer complexities), and that the main lesson he says he learned from Vietnam was merely that “some things work out, some don’t,” it’s not surprising that he doesn’t look back on his role in events with much self-doubt, let alone guilt.
Failure of imagination
The film looks like you expect an Errol Morris film to look – the main element is Rumsfeld talking to the camera against a black background; Morris himself is occasionally heard but not seen. He uses plenty of historical footage, and finds visual ways of emphasizing key points: for example, when Rumsfeld tells a story involving an elevator, the film gives us an elevator. He underlines Rumsfeld’s dictionary mania by flashing definitions of various terms on the screen as he evokes them (among others: “several,” “scapegoat,” “fantastic” and even “definition.”), juxtaposed against a swirling snow globe that symbolizes Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes” – his term for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of memos he’s generated during his career. The music score rumbles almost constantly in the background. It appears Morris means the film to be aesthetically striking, even beautiful, and he’s said in the past that he doesn’t think a documentary style that’s “grainy and full of handheld material” is “any more truthful.” Presumably that’s especially relevant to The Unknown Known, where the nature of truth (or at least, our leaders’ notion of the concept) is perpetually under interrogation.
But it means that the film ends up feeling like a performance by filmmaker and subject alike. Unlike Brody, I don’t think Morris gives us any perspective on Rumsfeld, or on anything larger, that can be termed a “masterwork.” There’s no revelation whatsoever in the fact that war is often based on lies, or on wild instincts dressed up as strategy and analysis. Rumsfeld says that Pearl Harbor was based on a “failure of imagination” – that is, that since the US couldn’t have envisaged the Japanese attacking in such a way at such a time, it failed to construct adequate defenses; 9/11 has been described in similar terms. But since then, the terrorist-obsessed “imagination” has only meant a decade of wild spending and misplaced attention to guard against various obscure but vivid risks, while the infinitely more immediate and more easily if mundanely imagined problems of unemployment, infrastructure, inequality and so forth have been allowed to stagnate. I’m writing this in the week following the UN’s latest climate change report, to which the right wing of course has had no problem at all in failing to apply its imagination. Against this vast public policy wasteland, one which grievously exposes our collective failure, Morris essentially focuses on trivialities. It’s not an entirely negligible project, but it’s one of secondary importance at best.
Standard Operating Procedure
This isn’t the first time I’ve had such a reaction to Morris’ work. His 2008 film Standard Operating Procedure, focusing on the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, seemed to me to spend far too little time on the ultimate reasons it really mattered (its contribution to the failure of the Iraq initiative, and the almost endlessly grim implications and consequences) and too much on frankly uninteresting meditations on the nature of photographic representation and the like (that film was similarly decked out with superficially eye-catching but counter-productive visual effects and “enhancements”). Likewise with The Unknown Known, one might forget that we’re talking about a colossal misuse of a nation’s capacities and direction, a vast moral atrocity inflicted on its citizenry.
I’m no fan of Michael Moore’s self-promoting stunt-ridden approach, but some of his passion and outrage wouldn’t be amiss here. If that seems like I’m letting my own views overly colour the assessment of the film, it’s for this reason: regarding the contribution to mankind of Rumsfeld and his cohorts, we actually know enough to make a judgment, and we should know that we know it.