The Austin Chronicle

Dive Into the Great 'Unknown'

By Monica Riese, September 22, 2013, 7:00pm, Picture in Picture

During a speech in February 2012, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a famous statement on weapons of mass destruction:

"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.

The astute listener will notice that there's a combination of those words that he left out: unknown knowns, which, in the opening sequence of Errol Morris' documentary on the man and his legacy of memos, he defines as "things you think you know that it turns out you did not."

(Understatement of the decade?)

But old Rummy didn't start his political career there. Indeed, The Unknown Known traipses through nearly a half-century of American history with Rumsfeld before arriving at the bits freshest in the audience's memory – Ford, Nixon, both Bushes, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, Pearl Harbor, Dora Farms, you name it. The detailed tour down memory lane is brought to you by Rumsfeld's obsessive ("you love that word, obsessive," he'd say if he read this) habit of recording his thoughts and ideas and doubts on a dictaphone and sending memos – ultimately, tens of thousands – to his staff on a regular basis. Seriously, the man dictaphone'd everything.

The documentary itself cribs heavily from these memos, nicknamed snowflakes for their white paper flurries; the audience follows along as modern Rumsfeld rereads his own words on a kinetic typography-sort of script. Then he responds to questions posed by Morris like so much of a Mr. Rogers sort of fellow with his blue and grey tie, his grandfatherly grin, and euphemistic metaphors: "Everything seems amazing in retrospect," he chirps. The interviews and re-created memos are supplemented in beautiful (and standard History Channel) fashion by overlaid dictionary definitions, artsy shots of oceans and reels of tape, headlines from the news of the day, and archival photos and footage where available. It's hard to deny that, in that sense, it's a lovely work.

Whether the message itself is lovely is largely dependent on the politics of the viewer. A liberal-leaning twentysomething is bound to get something very different out of the thing than someone to whom a greater proportion of those years exists in memory rather than textbooks, and he even calls out Morris at one point for phrasing a question in terms of "them" rather than "us." To those of a certain mind, his tautological statements will come off more as fundamental truths; to others, they'll gloss as hokey dodges and carefully couched responses by a storytelling old-timer.

I'll just say this: When this film was added to the lineup in a late announcement a few weeks back, many were confused by its place in the Fantastic Fest slate. But Fantastic Fest has long been known for its reputation as a celebration of genre works – horror, science fiction, fantasy. And after a good, hard look at the last 60 years of American political theatre, it'd not be a very large leap to suggest that recent U.S. history is unfortunately all three.

The Unknown Known screens Monday, Sept. 23, 2:20pm.

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