Down The Rabbit Hole After Rummy (or The Man Who Wasn't There): A Review of Errol Morris's Documentary, The Unknown Known
Documentary director, Errol Morris has made a career out of exploring human self-delusion. His last film, the 2003 Oscar-winning, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara focused on the career of the Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara during the Vietnam War. Lessons, yes, but no epiphanies. In that film, there is a point of ingress to the humanity of its subject. McNamara apologized on camera and seemed genuinely remorseful for the mistakes he made prosecuting the war in Vietnam. However, the movie was not without its moments of revealing frustration: we watch stunned as several glaring realizations deflected off of his rigid preconceptions and fly overhead just beyond his reach. The beauty of that was in how Errol Morris captured those moments on film.
In The Unknown Known, Morris examines another former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who promulgated and presided over yet another military misadventure, the Iraqi War. Here the going is much darker than in the previous film, in spite of its bright digital graphics and high-key lighting. Ever the narcissist, Rumsfeld loves the spotlight - even if the light cast upon him is hard and unflattering. Here in The Unknown Known the light is indeed hard, yet it exposes even less of its subject than in The Fog of War. Why?
It has everything to do with the subject and nothing about how Morris approaches it. Nothing penetrates the bullet-proof obtuseness of Rumsfeld. No lessons are learned and passed on. No onscreen epiphanies experienced. And certainly no apologies given. It’s disturbing to watch Rumsfeld onscreen, not because of what’s on display, but because of what isn’t. The reveal comes from what isn’t revealed. He is glibly impervious to introspection, self-examination or regrets, let alone assuming any personal responsibility for the quagmire of Iraq or the torture of terrorist suspects. The picture that emerges of Rumsfeld is of a mass of oblique angles suggestive of a human being that never quite coalesces into one. His lies are layered over with a thin façade of evasions, rationalizations, denials and saccharine platitudes couched in Lewis Carroll-esque sophistry - cherry-picked from sources like Martin Rees by way of Carl Sagan (i.e. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”) and de-contextualized to suit the convenience of the moment (namely, to convince the American public that WMDs existed in Iraq). Rumsfeld is as intellectually bankrupt as he is emotionally barren. On closer examination, his grand philosophies disintegrate into pulp like an origami Münchausen exposed to a hail storm. However, none of these revelations would faze him in the slightest. He's obviously too pleased with himself to notice or care.
In fact, nothing seems to touch him in any deep, profound way, although he is quite adroit at using feigned, shallow displays of emotion to manipulate situations. Factual contradictions deflect off of him like BB pellets on an Abrams tank. All we are left with is the yellowed veneer of his weirdly jocular, often inappropriate Cheshire grin and the queasy feeling that he views human relationships as an amusing, but dissociative, game of strategy. He is a Machiavellian apparatchik par excellence where the false self is all you get because there isn't anything else vaguely genuine hiding behind it to reckon with. Errol Morris has been accused of being played as a patsy, of not penetrating past Rumsfeld’s defenses to get to his core. But what if there isn’t anything else to the man but a layer of defense mechanisms? This is the material Morris has to work with and he avoids confrontation, hectoring or rhetorically painting Rumsfeld into a corner for his (and our) gratification. That would be too easy, too ham-fisted. He allows his subjects to weave the webs in which they ensnare themselves. And those webs are spun out of words.
Karl Kraus and George Orwell both explored how language is corrupted and manipulated to serve the abuse of power. Errol Morris is also a keen observer of this phenomenon in The Unknown Known. Rumsfeld’s endless fiddling with semantics in his oppressive deluge of memoranda (called “snowflakes”) to his colleagues is a reminder that sometimes the cruelest weapon an authoritarian can wield is not necessarily a well-placed lie, but rather the power to bore. (Although his lies ruined hundreds of thousands of lives, there were no reported avalanche casualties at the Pentagon.)
All that the audience is left with is Rumsfeld’s presence - or an eerie lack thereof. And it sucks the oxygen right out of the room. Watching him, it becomes apparent there’s no creativity, passion, nuance or emotional complexity operating here, nothing compelling enough to draw us in and keep us riveted, because Rumsfeld - like his bosses, Dubya and Hair Trigger Dick Cheney - lacks the depth and humanity necessary to do so. Our attention spans bead up and roll over Rumsfeld’s superficiality like tears on Teflon-plated armor because there is no point of entry to see underneath the lies and stratagems. Rumsfeld would have been far more intriguing, even sympathetic, if he hid a history of emotional wounds that compelled him to be so callous and destructive. Instead, what lurks beneath his hermetically sealed, air-tight surface is a howling void shaped like a man. So, it’s left to composer Danny Elfman’s score to provide the soul and moral center of the film. Without it, the film would be more difficult viewing, a vast stretch of desert without water.
In the final analysis, what Morris has captured on film is nothing less than a high-level sociopath working the room, the living embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil. But, unlike Eichmann, Rumsfeld will never know the clamminess of a prison cell or the bite of a hangman’s noose. Because of this, an argument could be made that the film is misclassified as a documentary when it should be filed under “Horror”.
It's terrifying to know that a hollow man like this was the Secretary of Defense twice under two administrations. However, the most frightening fact of Rumsfeld’s career is the one least known to the public: that he was once a contender for Ronald Reagan’s vice presidential running mate and, ultimately, - like the man who took his place, George H.W. Bush - President of the United States. Luck intervened. Or, as Rumsfeld himself might quip, "Stuff happens".
© 2014 Curt Chiarelli