Videophiled: Errol Morris explores ‘The Unknown Known’

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The Unknown Known (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) is not exactly a companion piece to The Fog of War, Errol Morris’ documentary on former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara. But like that 2003 documentary this takes on a former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and a foreign war that was launched and (mis)managed under his watch, with indefensible misconduct and scandals, and it is built on defining moments culled from hours of one-on-one interviews with the subject. Where it differs is the response of the subject: Rumsfeld never admits that the basis for war was built on a failure of intelligence or even that it was mistake to invade Iraq and he smiles his explanations to the camera. His smile, with those half-moon eyes suggesting a grandfatherly affection backed by experience and cocksure authority, is the defining image of the film.

Errol Morris is one of the most inventive and engaging non-fiction filmmakers in the world today, using a strong visual presentation to pull audiences in while building his case on excellent research and choice archival materials. But it is his talent as an interviewer and interrogator, honed over decades of filmmaking, that gives the film its dramatic power and its educational punch. Using his trademark Interrotron, a set-up which puts the camera in place of the interviewer as far as the subject is concerned (so they speak directly into the lens while engaging Morris), he confronts Rumsfeld without coming off as confrontational and uses silence as an editorial and a dramatic device. Those dead spaces after Rumsfeld’s statements suggest both an incompleteness and a directorial disagreement. Rumsfeld himself seems to take the production as a platform to lay out the legacy of his statesmanship with the confidence of authority behind his perfectly articulated reasoning that often never quite answers the questions posed to him. There is no doubt that Rumsfeld is both a smart, savvy political players and a polished media creature. But for all the easy-going pose of humility, he isn’t the least bit humble.

Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by filmmaker Errol Morris and a short interview with Morris discussing the genesis and the production of the documentary. Also features the 57-minute archival presentation “Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense,” an hour-long recording of a conference from 1989 featuring Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara and Caspar Weinberger, and the text of Morris’ four-part New York Times op-ed piece “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld.”

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