Sunday, 6 April 2014

Mistakes were made

Errol Morris’s new film, The Unknown Known, is a sustained observation of Donald Rumsfeld—not the sort of thing that would spring to mind when searching for something fun. Yet Morris must have a reason for wanting to spend months studying this profoundly creepy man. I’m sorry my membership at IFC didn’t land me a ticket to his appearance at the launch a couple of weeks ago because I would have asked him that straight out: given how unpleasant it was to spend 90 minutes watching a film about Rumsfeld, why on earth would you decide to spend two years of your life making it?

Morris’s approach isn’t journalistic, and he either doesn’t know all the details or chose not to confront Rumsfeld with the obvious distortions in his selective recollections. It’s not an Iraq war version of Inside Job, the Oscar-winning doc on the insidious role of prostieconomists in boosting the financiers’ coup. You don’t see Rumsfeld squirming like Glen Hubbard or Frederick Mishkin did in that film when director/interviewer Charles Ferguson nails them for their self-serving b.s. And with Rumsfeld, it would have been pretty easy for Morris to do it.

We do see Rumsfeld making shit up when it suits his purpose—it would almost impossible not to—and the occasional flashbacks to his performances at Pentagon briefings illustrate his cynicism plainly enough. For example, Rumsfeld pretends not to know why Americans were convinced in the pre-Iraq war days that Saddam Hussein had a direct hand in the 9/11 attacks. Another documentarian would have thrown in a half-dozen clips of Condi Rice and the Fox News hounds banging away at this theme, enabled by complicit news organs like the New York Times, to show how the propaganda apparatus was cranked up.

Maybe Morris thinks we know all that well enough and has other goals. He seems to want us to stare fixedly at a character who can continue, despite mountainous evidence to the contrary, to think he did a pretty good job and even now has no moral doubts. One could see a Rumsfeld type sitting with a puzzled expression in the dock at Nuremberg wondering what on earth he had done to be facing this unfair rap.

Morris in his other films often treats the offbeat but with a strong unifying theme of justice, especially when miscarried. He made the acclaimed film focused on Robert McNamara called The Fog of War, and he’s done films on people gaming the legal system (Vernon, Florida) and the wrongful conviction of a death-row inmate in Texas. (Morris’s work, which became The Thin Blue Line, got him freed.) He did one 20 years ago on Stephen Hawking’s gratifyingly weird life (A Brief History of Time) in his physical prison from which he contemplates the mysteries of the stars.

So what is it about Rumsfeld that Morris wants us to see? In interviews, Morris conceded that he didn’t try to back Rumsfeld into a corner and implies that that would be uninteresting. Instead, we are brought inside the strangely complacent world of a man directly responsible for vast amounts of human suffering and watch him shrug it off. It’s not a pleasant feeling. One inevitably thinks of all the executors of criminal orders in recent history who, if asked, universally say they had to do what they were told and point the finger at the guys on top. In sum, no one bears any guilt at all. Something just happened.

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