Blu-ray Review: ‘The Unknown Known’ Has Little Unknown That Needs Known

Anybody who knows the work of Academy Award Winning director Errol Morris knows that he is one of the most talented documentarians around. His documentary on Robert McNamara (The Fog of War) is one of the best looks into the mind of a government official that I have ever seen. The way he used various visual aids to create a narrative with McNamara’s words was astonishing.

This is exactly the same sort of method that Morris attempts to use here, but with a less significant degree of success. I’m not saying that this is a bad movie or not interesting, but it certainly feels like a movie that is completely out of its moment. The reason for this is mostly because we have seen the events that lead up to the Iraq war in dozens of documentaries for the last decade. So, do we really need another one? Does anyone really want to watch another one?

Well, I’m sure there are people that do and I kind of had an interest in hearing what Morris could get out of Rumsfeld himself. I also was interested to see what unique way Morris might shape his narrative. I mean, he did such an amazing job with McNamara. Yet, it becomes clear after the first couple minutes of watching this movie that we were basically going to watch a glorified and extended interview. You know, something that is casually interesting to watch on CNN, but not what you would want to pay for at a theater.

The good news is that even a CNN documentary has value and there are a lot of things about Rumsfeld’s history that are interesting. While the stuff about Iraq mostly feels like stuff we have seen a million times, there is about a 30 minute period of this film that is much more interesting. This is when the movie takes a step back to the late 1960’s and the beginning of Rumsfeld’s political career. We learn about his position in Watergate, the attempted assassination of President Ford, his political maneuvering in the Reagan Administration, and lots of other little tidbits leading through to the 1980’s.

This section of the movie actually feels like something that history forgot and is a fair look at the films subject. We get insight into Rumsfeld, his place in history, and there actually seems to be a structured biopic narrative. Then we return to Iraq, torture, Saddam, and everything that every journalist has asked Rumsfeld about for years. No surprise, we get all the same answers. He has a bit more time to detail things that he has spoken about before, but they are still things that anyone who has interest in this subject will have heard a thousand times.

Morris doesn’t really bring anything new to the table here. He clearly believes that Rumsfeld is full of shit when it comes to a number of his answers, but doesn’t engage him. This may be because he knew he had no movie if Rumsfeld didn’t sit through the entire interview without being offended. So, what we get instead of new insights are a bunch of old CSPAN press conference videos to counter Rumsfeld’s statements. It does effectively show that he is an untrustworthy individual, but it will only be revelatory to people who know little about this subject.

So, despite some clever visual aids and an interesting detour into Rumsfeld’s past, I can’t recommend you see this movie. If you want to watch it casually on television (if it gets picked up by a news channel) then it will work as a reminder of the events you already remember. If you know nothing about Iraq and you were living in a bubble for most of the 21st century then it is certainly something worth renting, but under no circumstances is it worth a trip to the theater. I’m sad to say, but this is my least favorite of Errol Morris’s films and I hope for more on his next trip out.

In stores on Tuesday, July 1.

Review By: Nathan Ligon

Nathan Ligon

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