Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Unwatchable Watchable: Errol Morris' The Unknown Known

Errol Morris (and his subject) in The Unknown Known

Film director Errol Morris once worked as a private investigator and his best part is his investigative-journalist side – the muckraking detective. While planning a documentary about a forensic psychiatrist who became notorious for his “expert witness” testimony in capital punishment cases, he happened to come across a death row conviction that didn't smell right and made a film (The Thin Blue Line) that ended up getting an innocent man released from prison. But Morris’ reputation as one of the greatest living filmmakers, and very likely the greatest living specialist in documentary feature filmmaking, isn't based mainly on 25-year-old headlines generated by his breakthrough movie. It’s based on his being a “stylist” – on his artistic pretensions and the easily recognizable visual and aural tics that make up his style.

Morris has been known to reject the term “documentary” in favor of “nonfiction film,” because he feels that having his movies called documentaries lumps them in with films shown in classrooms and on public television. Frederick Wiseman may well be the most important documentary filmmaker of the past fifty years, but if you happened to walk past a TV set while High School or Basic Training was showing, you could take a glance for a few random seconds and mistake them for a clip from any old TV news show. Morris’ movies look and sound like Errol Morris movies. How impressed you are by the fact that, more and more, they all look and sound like the same Errol Morris movie may depend on whether you use the word “auteur” in casual conversation.

Morris’ sense of himself as an artist extends beyond the look of his movies. In a 1989 New Yorker profile that was published around the time of the legal fallout from The Thin Blue Line, Mark Singer wrote that “a reporter for the Dallas Morning News had said to Morris, ‘You know, Errol, there are two sides to every story,’ and he had replied, ‘Yeah, the truth and falsehood.’” This side of Morris, the straightforward, moralistic believer in factual truth, co-exists uneasily with the arty-filmmaker side. He is very taken with the idea of different perspectives and people creating their own reality and the power that image and language have to affect our perceptions. But he does it to the point that he appears to be dicking around with the notion that there is no such thing as knowable truth. In The Thin Blue Line, this took the form of the movie’s dueling recreations of different witness’ versions of key events. As Morris’ career has advanced and his reputation grown, however, he’s no longer inclined to be so playful.

A scene from Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line
Seven years ago, Morris let his first-year-Philosophy-student-with-a-subscription-to-Artforum side overwhelm his judgment and made an utter hash of his Abu Ghraib movie, Standard Operating Procedure. In telling the story of the sniggering cretins who photographed themselves torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners, Morris may have set out to make the point that there were higher-ups who deserved to be held accountable as much as the soldiers who did time for their atrocities, but who managed to evade punishment, partly because they weren’t so imbecilic as to leave photographic evidence behind. But he put so much focus on the qualities and context of the pictures themselves that the torturers came across not just as fall guys, but as innocent victims who were destroyed because of public pressure brought to bear by people who lacked Morris’ sophisticated understanding of the totemic power of the photographic image; if anything, he extended more sympathetic feeling their way than he had shown to the actual blameless, wrongly convicted Randall Adams in The Thin Blue Line.

Morris’ new film, The Unknown Known, constitutes a second bite at the apple. He was able to persuade one of the 800-pound gorillas of the Iraq War, Donald Rumsfeld, to sit for what amounts to a feature-length interview, in which he can guide him through an account of his career and, in the process, ask him about the rationale behind the war and, among other things, question him about his own accountability in the torture scandal. The film is also a companion piece to the Oscar-winning The Fog of War, Morris’ feature-length interview with Robert McNamara, which had a special impact when it was released late in 2003, as it was becoming clear that the war that, for a time sent Rumsfeld’s approval numbers into the eighties, was not going to end either quickly or smoothly. McNamara put more restrictions on his interview than Rumsfeld did, and he refused to explicitly comment on Iraq and any parallels between it and the central fiasco of his Washington career and Vietnam, yet The Fog of War, which the two men promoted together, had the feel of a collaboration. The Unknown Known presents itself as a kind of confrontation. At the very end, Morris asks Rumsfeld, point blank, “Why are you doing this?” The implication, which Rumsfeld affably acknowledges, is that Rumsfeld has put himself, or at least his reputation, in harm’s way by volunteering to be interrogated by a tough, hostile interviewer. Rumsfeld could afford to be affable; the old pro probably realized, as Morris may not have grasped until he went into the editing room, that Morris didn't lay a glove on him.

Morris and Rumsfeld have a few things in common: Rumsfeld, too, is a great believer in the power of language and image to control perceptions and define reality. Asked to explain why the Bush White House was obsessed with Iraq, he refuses to accept the word “obsessed”; like the first President he worked for, Richard Nixon, it’s very important to him that he be seen as “cool and measured.” He flashes many a toothy smile and deflects many a leading question with a shrug: if “stuff happens” is going to appear on his tombstone, he wants the world to know he’s good with that. Asked about the lessons of Vietnam, the best he can come up with is, “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.” Irony rears its head when the subject turns to Saddam Hussein: “He was living his image of himself, which was pretend.” (On a more teeth-grinding level, he expresses bewilderment at Saddam’s behavior leading up to the war; he says he can’t understand why he didn’t do something to make the invasion necessary. If this means anything, it seems to mean that he doesn’t understand why Iraq didn’t freely surrender the weapons of mass destruction that it didn’t possess, insisted he didn’t possess, and the weapons inspectors assured the Bush administration didn’t exist.)

When the conversation turns to Abu Ghraib, Morris, like a dog with an old shoe, asks, “Why do you think the pictures” had such an impact, then asks Rumsfeld if he thinks that the abuse that happened at the prison in Iraq filtered down from the “heightened interrogation” techniques being used at Guantanamo Bay. Rumsfeld says, no, and adds that there were investigations led by men such as James Schlesinger that bear this out. Then Morris reads an excerpt from the Schlesinger report that argues that the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib did filter down from Gitmo. Rumsfeld responds by saying, “Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment.” This is Morris’ big “Have you no sense of decency, Senator?” moment, and he blows it: instead of asking Rumsfeld how he can so brazenly contradict himself, he can’t resist going for a cheap laugh, asking, “Are you saying, stuff happens?” Subtlety isn’t a weapon Morris has pulled out of his arsenal very often in the course of his career, and he’s wielding it against the wrong opponent.

Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known
Rumsfeld plainly doesn’t care about consistency or logic; he aims to win by consistently appearing unruffled and engaging and good-natured, and he’s a lot better at it than Nixon ever was. Where Robert McNamara appeared before Morris’ camera seeming troubled and concerned about his legacy and the country he would leave behind when he shuffled off his mortal coil, Rumsfeld walks the same path as the President Bush he served: We’ll never know what posterity will decide about us, because we’ll all be dead anyway, but let’s just assume future generations will think I was peachy. (Rumsfeld doesn’t say much about George W. Bush. He spends more time on Bush’s father, who was one of many who believed that Rumsfeld tried to shaft his presidential ambitions because Rummy wanted the crown for himself. Rumsfeld denies this is true, but with the ear-to-ear grin of a man who really likes the fact that the fellow under discussion hates his guts.)

Many viewers of The Fog of War felt that McNamara’s show of contrition was fake, but then, many viewers of The Fog of War would never think a nice thought about Robert McNamara if he donated a kidney to save the life of their child. I remember that when that movie came out, I wrote at an online chat board that I found McNamara personally impressive in that movie, and an older man asked me, angrily, if I thought there was anything Donald Rumsfeld could ever say that would make me take a forgiving attitude toward him. (It’s probably worth mentioning, for the sake of context, that this same man once wrote that Patty Hearst deserved to be kidnapped, beaten, and raped for having been born into money, and that she showed her true colors by testifying against her revolutionary comrades in court, after they had worked so hard to re-educate her.) 

I can’t say that The Unknown Known made me feel any warmer toward Rumsfeld, but the problem with that comparison is that part of what was interesting about The Fog of War was the contrast between the young McNamara, who looked so cocky and smug in old news footage, and the older man, looking humbler. McNamara talked frankly about how some of the actions he signed off on during World War II would have made him a war criminal if it weren’t for the fact that we had won that war. Rumsfeld here is just an extension of the one who was such a constant presence on the TV news for years not so long ago. All The Unknown Known does is give him a chance to recycle his smirking, “I may not be right about anything but by God I’m in charge act” from his wartime press conferences and dress it up in Morris’ usual mannerisms words floating around on screen, dictionary definitions popping up next to Rumsfeld’s head, and, on the soundtrack, Danny Elfman doing his best impression of Philip Glass and the music from Rosemary’s Baby. Plus, for that touch of comedy, the sound of the director asking his questions and becoming increasingly hysterical as it becomes clear that Rumsfeld is never going to drop to his knees and beg the world’s forgiveness. (“Really!?” Morris shrieks after Rumsfeld says that he never actually read the “torture memos.” Rumsfeld responds to this by saying, not reasonably, that he wouldn’t have understood the language because he’s not a lawyer.)

Unless you’re a new arrival to our planet or have recently awakened from a fifteen-year coma, The Unknown Known won’t tell you anything you don’t know already, unless you find it interesting to discover just how pissy Errol Morris can sound when his soufflĂ© refuses to rise. Yet so solid is Morris’ reputation, and kneejerk reverence defines so much of the current state of film criticism, that I’ve seen reviewers claim that this is a worthwhile, if not essential viewing experience. For them, spending an hour and 45 minutes watching Errol Morris fail to put a crack in Donald Rumsfeld’s smirk is, in and of itself, both remarkable and enlightening. That’s like saying that getting hit in the head with a brick is a worthwhile experience because it really fleshes out your abstract conception of pain.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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