I don't believe in monsters. That might be obvious when it comes to fanciful things like Bigfoot or vampires, I'm a bit of an outspoken spoil-sport when it comes to crap like that, but it also applies to the strictly human variety. Despots. Serial killers. Embezzlers and predatory financiers. There is not a person on this planet that can be summed up entirely by their evil and their misdeeds, no one without fear, or longing, or humanity of any kind.
No, there's no such thing as a monster. And it's to Errol Morris's latest film's great credit that it does not portray one. Not entirely.
The Unknown Known is a marvel in many ways. That it exists at all, that Donald Rumsfeld would subject himself, willingly, to an interview long enough, and open enough, to construct a feature-length documentary, simultaneously seems entirely out of character, and also makes complete and utter sense. Such is the nature of the man portrayed, a man who always had the power to overwhelm a room, but would make you feel like you burdened him with the opportunity to do so.
The film is also undeniably compelling. Morris does an excellent job of crafting a narrative out of the footage he's gathered, which aside from archival footage is comprised entirely of Rumsfeld, alone, in a chair, talking to the director. It's mostly biographical in structure, taking the viewer through the serpentine path of Rumsfeld's career. As a younger viewer, the man's presence through thirty years of American politics was fascinating, seeing the myriad familiar faces playing musical chairs with positions of power, especially coming from the man himself.
Because it's Rumsfeld himself that makes the film so captivating. Whatever your opinion of the man, he's a commanding presence, able to tell a compelling story, and, more importantly, able to construct compelling arguments. It's hard to question the earnestness of his desire to prevent what he calls a "lack of imagination" from dooming his country to another tragic disaster, while at the same time, his knowing, intimidating smile in the face of his own failures, or the failures of those around him, can at times approach unsettling. I find myself curious how I would respond had I never heard of the man, or been aware of his reputation. Would I have been won over by his charm? His calm demeanor and his steely insistence that he's been right all along?
And, indeed, when it comes to confronting his own failures, the false belief sold to the American public that Iraq was harboring WMDs, or was involved in the September 11 attacks, and others, he is fascinatingly incapable of even agreeing that such things occurred. He selectively remembers, or forgets, or retroactively changes his mind about his own motivations or the motivations of his country. He makes snide, sarcastic remarks. He brow-beats. He rephrases questions so thoroughly as to remove from them all meaning. Can it be frustrating to watch? Perhaps. But it's also a brilliant portrait of a real, complex, extremely thoughtful human-being dealing with his own legacy, and that it happens in front of a camera is absolutely thrilling.
At the conclusion of the film, Morris, whose questions are rarely heard during the course of the movie, asks Rumsfeld why he's doing this. "Why are you talking to me?"
Rumsfeld barely considers the question, making the sort of face you make when someone is wasting your time. A carefully constructed expression, displayed to the press countless times.
"That is a vicious question," he says. Then he finally does pause, and smiles. "I'll be darned if I know."
That's the man. Opaquely intimidating first, then earnest.
For many reasons, this is an important film. Everyone should see it, preferably with an open mind.