The Unknown Known

People want their authority figures to be able to present them with a compelling narrative. We can accept random chance and shit luck as an explanation for small scale events, but if something massive happens than there better be a good reason for it. If there isn't a good  explanation given then people will make up conspiracy theories because people cannot simply accept that the whole world works with the same level of randomness that their personal lives do.

Donald Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense when George Bush started his two wars, and he is not very much into narratives, which is a problem for this feature length documentary that is focused on him. Most of what he says is opaque enough that he could take credit if one side turns out to be right but still have plausible deniability if the opposite side triumphed. (He’s like a more dramatically inert and less sweaty Nixon in that regard.) A few times in this movie he makes a claim, is immediately presented with video proof that his claim is a lie, then he just shrugs it off without bothering to look embarrassed. He is not remotely interested in giving you any explanation for the mistakes that were made under his watch that a well informed viewer wouldn't have already heard ad nauseum, so if you are frustrated that his wars turned out so poorly and want to understand just how exactly they could get botched so badly – well, then this is not the movie for you.

You could make an interesting portrait of Rumsfeld, who has the genial air of a grandpa but the heart of a viper and a long history of being intimately involved with very complicated politicians, but this movie isn’t it. Director Errol Morris can’t get Rumsfeld to string together more than a few paragraphs of ideas at a time and he seems to be a bit lost in the face of such an uncooperative subject. As a result, the structure of this film really suffers. The middle is a bit draggy and it felt like there were three or four places where it could have ended, in part because I was waiting for it to end. If it can't get anything good out of the evasive snake at least it could have been shorter.

Which is not to say that this isn’t an important document in it’s own way. For all of it’s flaws, it’s still an in depth look at the banality of evil. Banality might not make for a good story, but it’s something we have to understand if we want to get why the world is the way it is. Sometimes everything goes wrong not because the people in charge are evil genuises bent on causing havoc but because they are stubborn fools who don’t care about correcting the consequences of their actions. After you watch the Unknown Known you probably still won't know what makes Donald Rumsfield tick, but you'll definitely know that he's stubborn and doesn't give a shit.

Winner: The Cat

The Unknown Known on IMDB