Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Unknown Known

At the end of The Unknown Known, director Errol Morris asks his subject, Donald Rumsfeld, why he agreed to be interviewed. But it’s easy to imagine why Rummy bit down on the bait he devours with such evident pleasure, making what he clearly sees as an irrefutable case in his own defense. The more interesting question is: what did Morris hope to achieve in giving him that platform?

Call it the fog of Rumsfeld. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense who helped get us into Vietnam and the last political figure to sit in front of Morris’ Interrotron, used his lifelong faith in research and analysis to grapple with the debacle he helped create, blaming “the fog of war” for having blurred his vision. In contrast, George W. Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has never been much interested in anything but the workings of his own deeply shallow mind. During all his decades in political office—a stint in Congress and cabinet positions under Presidents Nixon and Ford before his tenure under Bush, during which he was instrumental in the build-up to the Iraq War and its first few years of execution—Rumsfeld obsessively documented his thoughts and actions in memos he called “snowflakes,” writing and rewriting as if he could manipulate reality just by coming up with the right combination of words. And so he did, for a while, creating an obfuscating blizzard of words dense enough to blind most of the nation.

Rumsfeld, who prides himself on being “measured” and “rational,” faces the camera like a spider weaving its web, walking us through his political resume with an emphasis on the Bush years, justifying everything he did to get us into Iraq and nearly everything that happened as a result. A lot of the threads he spins are tautologies (“Everything seems amazing in retrospect. Pearl Harbor seems amazing in retrospect. It’s a failure of imagination.”) or self-cancelling contradictions (“All generalizations are false, including this one”), but his signature statement is an empty phrase dressed up to sound significant. “I know with certainty that over time, the contributions that you have made will be recorded by history,” he says to President Bush at his farewell press conference.

Morris occasionally makes like Jon Stewart, showing an old news clip or reading from a report that flatly contradicts something Rumsfeld just said, but for the most part he sits back, another sly old spider perched on a rival web, while Rumsfeld wraps himself up in a tightly self-contained cocoon. Danny Elfman’s dramatic score and cinematographer Robert Chappell’s elegant visuals, which often find geometric patterns in natural settings, form a subtle counter-narrative to Rumsfeld’s words, supplying a sense of dread that is utterly lacking in his placid whitewash.

It’s hard to bear Rumsfeld’s triumphal complacency and impossible not to sometimes wish Morris would challenge him more, or at least more overtly. But in the end, I suspect, the director got what he wanted: a portrait of the banality of evil, 21st century-style.

Written for The L Magazine

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