A Lack of Perspective, by Tyler Smith
It is not merely tempting to compare Errol Morris’ new documentary The Unknown Known to his 2003 documentary The Fog of War, it is virtually impossible not to. In fact, Morris seems to welcome it. Both films feature a former Secretary of Defense attempting to explain his actions in the midst of an unpopular war, set against a series of swirling imagery and archival footage. And while I believe that Morris intends for us to draw comparisons between the two men and observe their differing approaches to their respective legacies, I found myself much more struck not by their differences, but by the different tone Morris strikes in the two films.
The Fog of War was about Robert McNamara’s reflections on his life and eventual role in the Vietnam War. McNamara was 85 at the time of the interview, several decades after the end of that war. McNamara had time to meditate on the mistakes he may have made and eventually came to what appears to be a burning desire to explain and apologize for himself. The resulting film adopts that emotional tone, possibly because Morris himself had had the time to process his thoughts about that turbulent era. The Fog of War feels like two men trying to make sense of something relatively far back in their past; there is a mostly conciliatory tone to the proceedings, and the film is better for it.
In The Unknown Known, however, there is a seething anger underneath the surface. Perhaps this is as it should be, but it makes the film much less interesting that The Fog of War. The Iraq War, it appears, is too recent for Morris to try to adopt a truly inquisitive tone. More than anything, he seems willing- maybe even eager- to use his film to hold his subject’s feet to the fire. But, in the end, he doesn’t really accomplish anything. If you are a supporter of Donald Rumsfeld going into the film, it likely won’t convince you otherwise. And if you hate Rumsfeld, you’ll only be confirmed in that hatred.
Oh, sure, Morris incorporates aspects of Rumsfeld’s biography, following his career in Washington through the years, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. He has no real interest in trying to understand this man, as he did in The Fog of War. The biographical details seem obligatory, like he just wants to get them out of the way so he can get to the fun. The fun here being the opportunity to indict Donald Rumsfeld.
I don’t consider myself a big fan of Rumsfeld- though he can be pretty damn charming- but I also don’t see the need for this film. He is not, by and large, a beloved historical figure; there is no record to set straight. Unlike The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which seeks to undermine the legacy of a man considered to be one of our better Secretaries of State, The Unknown Known just wants to revel in the anger and hatred that people are already feeling. It brings nothing new to the conversation.
Of course, Morris is still in top form technically. His ability to make a man sitting alone in a chair telling his story as visually stimulating as many action films is pretty astounding. His choice to jump back and forth in Rumsfeld’s story, approximating the non-linear aspect of our memory, injects the film with vitality and forces us to focus on what we’re seeing. And Danny Elfman’s score- more than a little reminiscent of Philip Glass- is the right kind of propulsive, demanding attention from the audience. I just wish that this had all been in service of a better movie.
I’m not saying the film has to be objective. If a documentary subject is a bad person, the filmmaker should be under no obligation to make the argument that the person is also good. And Rumsfeld displays such a Washington insider’s point of view that it’s clear he mostly lacks perspective on some of the things he’s done; Morris’s job isn’t to make Rumsfeld seem like something he isn’t.
However, Rumsfeld’s lack of perspective is mirrored by Morris’ own. I think he has let his own feelings about the Iraq War- hardly a distant memory- inform the way he made this film, to the point that he himself lacks the usual inquisitive spirit that has so defined his work. Morris has shown himself in the past to be nothing if not curious, but, in The Unknown Known, this curiosity seems to begin and end with his firm notion of who Donald Rumsfeld is. And the result is a film that could have been an unflinching profile of a controversial figure, but is content to be a stomping tirade against somebody the director doesn’t like, with all the nuance and subtlety of a letter to the editor.