Early in his career, Errol Morris made documentary portraits of ordinary Americans—grieving pet owners, Texas convicts, the residents of a small Florida town—and made them extraordinary by simply asking the right questions and letting them reveal themselves. Lately, however, he’s been mostly interviewing political figures, who are much cagier by nature. The Fog Of War coaxed former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara into some shallow self-analysis, and soldiers who participated in or witnessed the abuses at Abu Ghraib told their stories with stoic candor in Standard Operating Procedure. But tackling another secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, in The Unknown Known, Morris has finally met his match. The film is illuminating only in its utter lack of illumination—for looking deep into the eyes of someone incapable of letting his guard down and finding, predictably, nothing whatsoever.
Opening with Rumsfeld reading an excerpt from one of his numerous internal memos (dubbed “snowflakes”), The Unknown Known does offer many opportunities for Morris to employ one of his favorite devices, which dates back to The Thin Blue Line: juxtaposing nearly abstract close-ups of documentation with the words being spoken by his interview subjects. In this case, however, the two generally concur, with Rumsfeld reciting sentences he wrote years previously and agreeing with himself in every instance. While he discusses his entire career, the emphasis, as one might expect, falls primarily on his years in the second Bush administration, particularly the failure to anticipate the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent decision to invade Iraq based on false information. Though Rumsfeld relates two different occasions on which he offered Bush his resignation, not once does he express anything like sincere contrition, or even doubt. On the contrary, he seems to view the movie as a golden opportunity to improve his image, and Morris’ occasional efforts at being combative get deflected with the offhanded savvy of a tennis champion.
The ad campaign for The Unknown Known pictures Rumsfeld with a sickly grin on his face, accompanied by copy that asks, “Why is this man smiling?” That artificial smile seems to be Rumsfeld’s reflexive way of filling a pause in the conversation—of trying to be genial—and Morris starts deliberately creating dead air in order to prompt it, which is a bit underhanded. More substantively, he also impeaches Rumsfeld several times by following his remarks with TV news clips that contradict what he just said, but Jon Stewart does that sort of thing four nights a week on The Daily Show. Morris has never made a bad or uninteresting movie, but this one comes as close as he ever has to being fundamentally pointless—just a typical Rumsfeld briefing shot with a much better camera and inflected with some polite skepticism. It’s fascinating to watch a man give away so little for so long, but you learn nothing you didn’t already know.