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Monday, September 9, 2013

Known Unknown: A Documentary of Historical Significance

It's very rare that a movie is something of historical significance, but one that does fall into that category played last night at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Errol Morris' Known Unknown is a two hour documentary that the director pared down from over thirty hours of interviews he filmed with former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Those who remember him from the press conferences he held for the Defense Department during the second Iraq War will recall Rumsfeld's acerbic wit. That wit is on full display in Morris' film, but we get much more. The audience also gets to witness the thoughtfulness and the keen awareness of history Rumsfeld possesses, as well as valuable insights into the ways by which decisions that shaped tumultuous world events were formed.

Like in his earlier film The Fog of War, Morris wisely lets his subject to almost all the talking. We only hear Morris a handful of times in the film. Much of what we hear in Known Unknown is Rumsfeld reading from among the countless memos, which he called his "snowflakes," that he sent during his tenure as a senior official in the administrations of US presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush.

Known Unknown should be compulsory viewing for anyone who believes the insane conspiracy theories about the September 11, 2011 terror attacks. Conspiracy theorists operate under the misconception that government and its leaders are all-knowing and powerful. Hearing just how much that is not the case from someone like Rumsfeld could be an enlightening revelation for them.

One of the times we hear from Morris in the film, he accuses Rumsfeld of having a particular obsession with Iraq, which the former Defense Secretary convincingly refutes. However it's Morris' own obsession with the contradictions that he believes Rumsfeld embodies that drives the tone of his movie.

Rumsfeld has been vilified by many who detest the last President he served, George W. Bush and in the talk Morris gave following the Toronto screening of his movie, it was easy to get the sense the director shared at least some disdain for his subject. But Morris the filmmaker is too honest and too fine a craftsman to have let those feelings interfere with his compelling finished product, which is dramatically enhanced by Danny Elfman's brilliantly eerie score.

As a matter of due disclosure, I should note that I worked for Participant Media, one of the companies responsible for producing Known Unknown. I was the person who first introduced the idea of attaching specific social action campaigns and goals to the organization's movies; an approach that worked most notably for their documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

There are convincing arguments to be made on both sides about whether Al Gore is a visionary genius who spurred the world into staving off environmental suicide or a narcissistic dilettante pushing junk science. But in either case, there is no dispute that An Inconvenient Truth has been enormously influential. It is used as a teaching tool in schools all over the world and has been instrumental in shaping the perceptions about Global Warming.

But it's actually Participant's new movie, Known Unknown, which will be of lasting historical significance and is of indisputable educational value. The contradictions that bothered Morris so much are part of an unavoidable dilemma faced by those in positions of power faced with making momentous decisions. They are inundated with innumerable reports and prognostications where much of the information they receive is filled with conflicting data.

At the end of the day, the people who made decisions like those in the White House who chose to pursue the war in Iraq are fallible human beings. There is no certainty to any choice until it can be viewed in retrospect, and sometimes not even then. So while it may be easy for some to condemn Rumsfeld or George W. Bush for the course they steered, they chose what they thought was the best course of action in Iraq based on the information they had.

Known Unknown will be a satisfying experience for anyone who sees it, since people on either side of the divide over the Iraq war will not only gain insight but will be able to find ways of having their own prejudices confirmed. However, regardless of one's ideological outlook, witnessing that people with the humanity and cognisance of a Rumsfeld have to grapple with the difficulties he faced in the ways he did is something everyone should see. Morris and Rumsfeld make that predicament abundantly clear in Unknown Known.

Morris may be critical of the way his subject chose to act. But we can see from the current Middle East crisis and the ineptitude with which the current American President has handled it, that failing to act is in itself a decision. And as we are observing in real time from Barack Obama, not acting decisively can often do more damage than a flawed decision.

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