Wednesday, 2 April 2014

THE UNKNOWN KNOWN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Moe Does Rum Real Good - Opens Bloor Hot Docs Apr. 4

The Unknown Known (2013) ****
Dir. Errol Morris
Starring: Donald Rumsfeld

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Ace master documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is back in familiar territory with this one-on-one exploration of the life and times of George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the clearly gifted master of political doubletalk, misinformation, disinformation and perhaps one of the most dangerous, despicable and evil Americans of the past decade. Much like The Fog of War, Morris' exploration of Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War, Morris hits his new subject with tough questions. Blending archival footage, graphs, charts and an assortment of Rumsfeld's memos (numbering over 20,000 he issued during a six-year period) the veteran documentarian attempts to paint as honest a portrait as possible of a political mastermind of legal mass murder, or, if you will, the war against terror. (The only thing missing is a Philip Glass score - inexplicably replaced with a so-so Danny Elfman score.) McNamara was a different beast, though. He at least seemed to be telling the truth. None of that - truth, that is - appears to be on display here.

With a malevolent grin, Rumsfeld makes you think he's letting the cat in the bag slip out, but in the same breath, he's letting you know the cat's still in the bag and that his final word on the matter will always ensure that the bag's indeed, in the river. In fact, we never get a clear picture of anything from Rumsfeld. It always seems clear, but never feels truthful. In several contexts, Rumsfeld is caught completely contradicting himself and hilariously ignoring and/or talking his way out of his obvious falsehoods and/or contradictions

The film delivers a good deal of personal and historical detail on Rumsfeld, the most fascinating of which is his keen interest in and study of history - especially, not surprisingly, in terms of war. When he discusses America's past, one gets a clear sense of how his own decisions are colored by his analysis of past American failures and triumphs. For example, he refers to America's unpreparedness for the attack on Pearl Harbor as "a failure of the imagination". Of course, he prides himself on his own imagination and how it leads to a constant state of "worry" - one which he maintains is the ultimate state of preparedness. He goes so far as to suggest that great nations must never accept the notion that peace can ever be achieved.

"If you wish for peace," Rumsfeld maintains you must immediately begin to "prepare for war."

Morris usually keeps his cool as the off-screen interviewer, but on occasion, his utter incredulity with respect to Rumsfeld's delectable twisting of the truth is genuinely entertaining. We're witness to one magnificent turn of phrase after another. The man is a master spin doctor and even more astoundingly, he might actually be the best generator of juicy sound bites in the world - ever. Here's a tiny, but choice grocery list of a few of them:

"All generalizations are false, including this one," he proclaims.

"The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," he opines on weapons of mass destruction or lack thereof in Iraq.

Of course, Rumsfeld treats us to one of his astounding humdingers (which Morris uses for the film's title): "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don't know we don't know. The unknown known, however, is a thing that we know, but are unaware of knowing."

And there are even some sound bites that feel genuine, almost moving, such as his response to 9/11 and an explanation for his subsequent actions: "Something terrible happened on my watch."

If Rumsfeld seems less up-front in this film than McNamara was in The Fog of War, it doesn't make him any less fascinating and Morris expertly presents us with a movie that might have even more obvious entertainment value. The almost-easy-to-swallow nature of The Unknown Known in terms of how engaging it is as a movie, also doesn't make it any less an important record of contemporary American history - and by extension, world history.

The whole movie, in fact, is a hoot from beginning to end, but what we're ultimately presented and left with is 96 minutes of lies - or, at the very least, what Rumsfeld wants us to hear, even if we don't believe a word.

The man has no shame. None. He could have been a President.

"The Unknown Known" plays theatrically at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. For dates, showtimes and tickets visit HERE.