Chances are, if you're at all interested in Errol Morris' The Unknown Known (2013), you're more than passively familiar with the man it's all about: former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a polarizing political figure who helped to plan out and exacerbate America's invasion of Iraq and was widely criticized for his part in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Having previously served as SOD under President Ford from 1975-77 and a Congressman during most of the 1960s, Rumsfeld's political career ended in late 2006 following his resignation. Since then, he's established an educational foundation, written a best-selling memoir, and has generally stayed pretty busy for a guy now in his 80s. Despite the mountain of evidence detailing his participation in world-changing disasters, Rumsfeld seems more interested in justifying or side-stepping his mistakes than actually admitting them. It's a process that obviously took decades to perfect.
In an accompanying introduction by Morris, the director explains his interest in putting Rumsfeld under the microscope; not surprising, given the success of his Oscar-winning 2003 documentary, The Fog of War. What is surprising is that Rumsfeld accepted Morris' offer, literally putting him face-to-face with one of his biggest critics. It was a smart move on both sides, which makes it all the more disappointing that The Unknown Known isn't more successful, engaging or as confrontational as you'd initially expect. There's obviously a thick layer of contempt on both sides of the camera; they take turns casually dismissing questions and responses, while Rumsfeld's frustrating habit of clouding direct responses proves to be exceptionally frustrating. The film itself concerns itself with two things: a brief overview of Rumsfeld's career (which is only bookended by positions in government) and a barrage of Rumsfeld's non-classified memos, nicknamed "snowflakes" and read on camera by the author himself. It's a curious way to get to know someone, though Rumsfeld seems more concerned with how he's being perceived that whether or not his statements make any sense.
The title comes from a statement Rumsfeld made at a 2002 press conference, in a move that completely circumvents the question being asked of him. It's just one of many instances where the interview subject talks in circles, which makes for an interesting initial viewing but negates any degree of lasting value. Along the way, you'll hear Rumsfeld refer to the attack on Pearl Harbor as "a failure of imagination", watch him completely ignore the concept of "innocent until proven guilty" and, almost every step of the way, paint himself into a corner while flashing a smile. It's an entertaining experience that keeps viewers consistently off-balance, but The Unknown Known is much more surreal than revealing and its potential replay value is limited because of this. Regardless, The Weinstein Company's Blu-ray package is a solid and well-rounded effort, serving up a decent A/V presentation and a handful of appropriate bonus features.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
I'm baffled as to why a 2.40:1 aspect ratio was chosen for The Unknown Known: Rumsfeld's talking head interviews are perpetually cropped, while vintage 1.33:1 media clips and photos have been further trimmed to fit the frame. But either way, this 1080p transfer maintains that original aspect ratio and serves up solid image detail, accurate colors, steady black levels and no excessive digital manipulation. The main problems are, of course, due to source material issues or a direct result of the cropping mentioned above. In any case, multiple decade-spanning documentaries are almost always a mixed bag in the visual department, so it's not surprising that The Unknown Known neither amazes nor disappoints.
DISCLAIMER: The promotional images featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is clean, crisp and obviously front-loaded, although the rear channels are occasionally employed for added effects and Danny Elfman's score. Vintage audio clips are frequently subtitled on-screen for clarity's sake, but full English (SDH) and Spanish subtitles are also included during the entire main feature if you need them.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The menu interface is clean and simple, though a handful of trailers, logos and ominous warning screens must be dealt with beforehand. This one-disc release is housed in a standard keepcase; no slipcover or inserts have been included.
There's actually a pretty nice selection of supplements here, but one wonders why a film assembled from hours upon hours of interviews includes no deleted scenes. Either way, the main attraction is a feature-length Audio Commentary with Errol Morris that, despite a number of long pauses and a predictably defensive posture, delivers a few chunks of good information. Sample topics include Rumsfeld's habit of self-perception, "the dangers of excessive imagination", Vietnam vs. Afghanistan and "The War on Terror", covering your tracks, living in "a world of words" (in regards to Rumsfeld's long-winded, circular answers), contradictory statements and, of course, a boatload of snarky comments.
Next up is a like-minded "Conversation with Errol Morris" (8:15) that serves as more of an introduction to the film, in which the director describes his initial interview request, their initial meetings, Rumsfeld's mountain of "snowflakes", his perpetual (and often inappropriate) smiles during the interview, talking in circles and more. In both cases, Morris freely admits that The Unknown Known did not turn out as expected, but he seems grateful for the opportunity to make it.
Other media-related items are also here, like the "Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense" (56:53), a Georgia Public TV production from December 1st, 1989. Moderated by New York Times editor and Frontline correspondent Hedrick Smith, this session ("Beyond the Cold War") includes former SODs Melvin Laird (under Nixon, 1969-1973), Frank Carlucci (Reagan, 1987-89), Caspar Weinberger (Reagan, 1981-87), James R. Schlesinger (Nixon/Ford, 1973-75), Donald Rumsfeld himself (Ford/Bush, 1975-77 and 2001-06), and Robert McNamara (Kennedy/Johnson, 1961-68).
Last up is a recent (March 2014) Morris Op-Ed piece, "The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld", which includes interviews and other comments on cramped pages that are awfully hard to read. These segments (also available on The New York Times' site) include "Three Reporters", "The Known and The Unknown", "A Failure of Imagination", and "Absence of Evidence Isn't Evidence of Absence". Optional subtitles have been included for everything but the commentary.
Errol Morris' The Unknown Known isn't one of the director's best efforts, but the fact that it even exists pretty much makes it worth watching at least once. Rumsfeld's unlikely consent to being interviewed for hours on end, however, isn't as revealing as one might expect: he talks in circles more often than not, while his massive library of memos is both the film's biggest highlight and most frustrating element. Still, it's interesting to see such a polarizing figure put under the microscope, though I'd imagine that any interested parties won't learn anything they didn't already know (or assume). The Weinstein Company's Blu-ray package offers a suitable A/V presentation and the supplements add a bit of value. Still, the film's relatively low replay value and its niche appeal make this a "try before you buy" disc. Rent It first.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.