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The Unknown Known: Rumsfeld Documentary on Screens Now


Errol Morris‘ Rumsfeld documentary The Unknown Known is out now.

In THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris (THE FOG OF WAR) offers a mesmerizing portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, one of the key architects of the Iraq War, and a larger-than-life character who provoked equal levels of fury and adulation from the American public. Rather than conducting a conventional interview, Morris has Rumsfeld perform and expound on his “snowflakes,” tens of thousands of memos (many never previously published) he composed as a congressman and as an advisor to four different presidents, twice as Secretary of Defense. These memos provide a window onto history—not history as it actually happened, but history as Rumsfeld wants us to see it. Morris makes plain that Rumsfeld’s “snowflakes”—whether intended to elucidate, rationalize, obfuscate, or control history—are contradicted by the facts. THE UNKNOWN KNOWN is an illumination of the mystery of Donald Rumsfeld, an unknown known.

Myself, I don’t think I could stand to sit through it, I get the creeps just looking at this Donald’s face and nauseated just thinking about what he did to Iraq – and America.

But at Clio’s urging, I’ll give you others’ reactions to it.

Fantastic Fest at Rotten Tomatoes:

Morris’ film THE UNKNOWN KNOWN is a gripping exploration of the career and philosophy of former U.S Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Using declassified memos, Morris guides Rumsfeld through a discussion of his controversial career as a high-level executive under four different Republican presidents. Such absorbing topics as Vietnam, the Cold War, Desert Storm and the War on Terror are all examined through the words of one of America’s most divisive and complex public figures. (c) Fantastic Fest

Godfrey Cheshire at Roger Eberts:

In 2003, documentary stalwart Errol Morris released his celebrated, Oscar-winning portrait of Vietnam-era U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, “The Fog of War.” This week brings the release of what’s effectively a companion piece to that work, a portrait of Iraq War SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, a film that perhaps would have most accurately been titled “The Fog of Words.”

That it is called instead “The Unknown Known” shows why: the expression is an infinitesimal speck in the cyclone of verbiage that almost visibly circles Rumsfeld’s head at every moment, like moons whirling around Jupiter. The grinning politico famously split verbal hairs by enunciating the differences between known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns and unknown knowns—pettifogging distinctions that needn’t be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that, somewhat bizarrely, Rumsfeld seems to spend more time talking about words than the things they refer to, a characteristic that can make Morris’ film feel stubbornly frustrating.

At first glance, that is. More than any film this reviewer has seen in ages, “The Unknown Known” richly rewards a second viewing. The first time through, it’s all too easy to focus on the many issues Rumsfeld’s verbal miasma obscures rather than reveals, and to fault Morris for not pressing and pinning down his subject more effectively. The second time, one can’t help but reflect that these bafflements are what the film ends up being about, really, and that they may be a more worthy and fascinating subject than the officious man who generates them.

Michelle Dean in an insightful review encouraging us to see the film:

Does the movie admit that Rumsfeld is human? Yes. For one thing, Morris lets the camera linger on Rumsfeld’s grin a great deal. Rumsfeld, it turns out, is a champion grinner. I know this will send some people into fits of apoplexy about Rumsfeld’s being smarmy, and he is in places smarmy. But mostly his grins seem sincere and all the more sinister for it.

On Rumsfeld’s face, a smile is a curious expression. He has small but rather wide-set teeth and the corners of his mouth draw up in a way that indicates practice and, dare I say it, neediness. There is a vague awareness in these smiles that the strategy has not been working for him. The grin acts as punctuation, and always lingers just a bit too long.

There are a number of interviews with Mr. Morris as he does the perfunctory press tour, here are a couple for those wanting more.

Have you seen it? Or will you?

My most profound disappointment is the interview was not conducted at the USP Florence ADMAX.

Seriously, why IS this man smiling?

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