An interesting piece of one-on-one documentary filmmaking with a controversial figure

Errol Morris follows-up on his Oscar snagging Fog of War with this sit down, peering into Donald Rumsfeld’s inner thinking. Tracking Rumsfeld’s earlier career in the Nixon White House and then sweeping back through a difficult tenure as the Secretary of Defense under George Bush, Morris finds himself pressing and the content over extended.

Morris’ 2003 documentary Standard Operating Procedure, which detailed torture in Abu Ghraib prison, creates some overlap in this pounding series of interview questions. Unknown Known is indulgent with lavish visuals and strikingly fierce cinematography for what amounts to a talking head exchange. Even composer Danny Elfman is called to add a piercing orchestrated voice to elevate this one-on-one, and while effective in branching away from boredom, few action features reach such grandiose proportions let alone those labeled documentaries.

Thus, it’s up to Rumsfeld’s often indifferent personality or word twisting – a particular political skill Rumsfeld possesses without equal – to carry Morris’ line of questioning. Leering toward the lens, Rumsfeld takes accusations for the Iraq war, pre-9/11 intelligence, and other foibles the administration would be accosted for. While editing may appear pre-programmed for Morris’ intent, Unknown Known still produces humanization, following the politician’s career catalog from his earliest office runs to a conclusive stepping down in late 2006.

Given the nature of internet political tantrums, it is traditionally pointless to skew critical perspectives at either side of America’s government system, but Unknown Known is definitively placed on dueling sides. Morris injects himself deeply into his feature even if the camera peers away from his position, outlining a level of inquiry which lands on necessitated stopping points. Torture, minced words, WMDs, Sadam Hussein – it’s a catalog of early ’00’s historical context without the passage of time to lend it credence or remorse.

Unlike Fog of War, which carried deeper archival interest, Unknown Known is pulled in tighter for a condensed potential audience. Time has revealed the gross incompetence of Vietnam engagement – not so much for Iraq, even if certain pundits would state otherwise. Here, Rumsfeld is driving the material because Morris is often caught within the trap of recent events. Unknown Known leaves little doubt about the existence of aimless political power and the warped manipulation of war perceptions based on 9/11, but Morris has little to extract other than a smirking Rumsfeld which is instantaneous poster fodder without contextual merit. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Movie]

Unknown Known Blu-ray screen shot 14

Shot slickly with a dominating light pouring on Rumsfeld’s face during direct questioning, this disc will produce an ample level of facial detail on new footage. Hairs and pores are densely part of the consistent texture, while encoding keeps images pure. Despite hues fading in the background, Anchor Bay/Starz compression work displays no instances of banding.

Unknown Known is everywhere on the imagery scale, from stock footage in Vietnam and SD press interviews of Rumsfeld in office, complete with aliasing or false scan lines. Some shots are faded, some are black & white, others are manipulated through post-production. This documentary work is traditional in its scope.

Some new footage was produced, including shots of the Pentagon and wide angles of the White House. These shots are either tinted or given direct contrast – only black and only white, nothing between. They prove stark and intense in their effect for brief appearances. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Video]

While possibly considered overkill, Unknown Known’s DTS-HD soundscape is massive, with missile launches, bombs exploding, and jet take-offs. When ignited, the low-end is substantial if (obviously) artificially added for depth. The same goes for any audio work seeping into the rears. However, Rumsfeld’s dialog is exceptionally bold and recorded with impact. By comparison, Morris appears faded, or dubbed over in post. Differences between vocal qualities are heavy.

Danny Elfman’s dramatic themes are consistent in their wrap around, bleeding into surrounds with plenty of energy. Orchestration splits the front stereos wide with precision placement. Instrumentation is clear, and where applicable, nicely melded to the interview. [xrr rating=4/5 label=Audio]

Errol Morris is up first with a commentary track, recounting his experience in actually getting the interview and then discussing his own personal thoughts on the answer process. A Conversation with Errol Morris slips onto the same path, if shorter at eight minutes.

A panel with six Secretaries of Defense from 1989is featured, with Rumsfeld of course involved in this one hour conversation. Finally, a four-part op-ed from Morris is featured, all in text. [xrr rating=3/5 label=Extras]

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.


Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.

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