That guy with the strange movie idea was named Errol Morris, whose 1978 documentary about a California pet cemetery, Gates of Heaven, ended up on Roger Ebert’s all-time Ten Best Films list and inspired the culinary event chronicled in Les Blank’s early short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The German director had lost his wager that the notoriously distractible Morris would never complete Gates of Heaven; he subsequently provided $2,000 in seed money for Morris to start compiling footage for the doc about the Florida town.Circa 1980, this reviewer was honing her cinephilic chops working for the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), a SoHo-based not-for-profit that provided arts services and advocacy for low-budget producers and directors. Among the services sometimes requested by AIVF’s clientele were letters of support for grant applications by aspiring filmmakers seeking funding to edit or distribute their works. One such request immediately caught every eye in the place: A quirky-but-talented guy with one acclaimed documentary already under his belt was working on an exposé of a little town in Florida where an absurdly disproportionate number of residents were missing digits, allegedly as part of an organized insurance fraud scheme. He wanted to call it Nub City.
But Nub City never got made, due to death threats that Morris claims to have received from local residents. Instead, he rejiggered the footage that he had shot of the town’s oddball citizenry into a charmingly weird docu-postcard titled Vernon, Florida.
Like his contemporary Blank, Morris was attracted to the blue-collar stories of America’s rural byways and backwaters. But while Blank keeps his main focus on celebrating regional music and cuisines, Morris is more of an investigative journalist, with a muckraker’s heart and an acquired taste for the darker side of human endeavors. Several projects profiling bank robbers and serial killers never got off the ground. It was The Thin Blue Line (1988) – a film that directly led to the exoneration of Randall Dale Adams, a Texan wrongfully convicted of the murder of a police officer – that truly cemented Morris’ reputation as one of the greatest documentarians in modern cinema.
Since then, Morris has created such acclaimed works as A Brief History of Time (1991), a biopic about physicist Stephen Hawking, and the Best Documentary Feature Oscar-winning The Fog of War: 11 Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), both with scores by Philip Glass. He continues his examination of the ways in which US Secretaries of Defense manage to rationalize decisions that lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of people in his latest opus, The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld.
While Morris clearly has an agenda, he seems to have learned long ago what any diligent journalist learns over time: that if you want to sustain your reputation for professional objectivity without sacrificing your right to have a point of view, all you need to do is let your subject talk long enough. And people attracted to positions of power do seem to like to hear themselves talk. Whether he’s a member of a town planning board or a presidential cabinet, a fool or a villain will soon enough proffer an ample selection of foolish or villainous quotes to choose from. You don’t usually need to press him too hard before he’s “hoist with his own petard,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it.
In Rumsfeld’s case, Morris is sparing with the barbed questions, only once in the entire film displaying outright incredulity. The former congressman and two-term Defense honcho – who served as secretary under both the Gerald Ford and George W. Bush administrations – seems absurdly pleased and flattered by the invitation to read and comment on some of his Dictaphone notes-to-self and his famous “snowflakes,” as his upper-echelon staff termed the memoranda with which Rummy showered them daily. Indeed, through most of the film his mouth wears a frozen grin that often seems inappropriate – especially when he’s talking about subjects like “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “collateral damage” – and never quite reaches his eyes. When the director catches him in a lie, he doesn’t throw it in Rumsfeld’s smiley face; he just cuts to a clip of him admitting the opposite in some past news conference or other.
Though The Unknown Known is in its essence a talking-head documentary, it’s by no means dull or dry. Now that he can command a budget that doesn’t rely on $2,000 stakes from Werner Herzog, the director is able to employ sophisticated cinematic techniques that help keep the viewer well-engaged in Rumsfeld’s reminiscences about his long and drama-filled career. Morris invented a gadget that he calls an Interrotron, which uses multiple mirrors that allow the interviewee to make simulated eye contact with his questioner while looking straight into the camera. The interviews in this case are also shot from multiple angles, varied by use of what appears to be an old-fashioned switcher rather than edited from multiple takes. To ease the eye further, Morris interpolates archival news footage, animated graphics and overlays, including recurring dictionary entries as his subject prevaricates endlessly about the meaning of Defense Department terminology. Danny Elfman supplied the film score this time out, and it’s puckish and ominous by turns.
How audiences interpret The Unknown Known will depend to some extent on their personal politics – in particular, on how one feels about the invasion of Iraq based on dubious reports of WMDs, or about the torture and indefinite incarceration without trial of suspected terrorists. But even if you merely harbor vague doubts about the veracity of what you’re told by government officials in general, you will likely find Rumsfeld’s bloodless, self-serving performance both chilling and instructive. As Hamlet put it four centuries ago, “A man may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”