American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In 2003, documentary stalwart Errol Morris released his celebrated, Oscar-winning portrait of Vietnam-era U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, "The Fog of War." This week brings the release of what's effectively a companion piece to that work, a portrait of Iraq War SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, a film that perhaps would have most accurately been titled "The Fog of Words."
That it is called instead "The Unknown Known" shows why: the expression is an infinitesimal speck in the cyclone of verbiage that almost visibly circles Rumsfeld's head at every moment, like moons whirling around Jupiter. The grinning politico famously split verbal hairs by enunciating the differences between known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns and unknown knowns—pettifogging distinctions that needn't be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that, somewhat bizarrely, Rumsfeld seems to spend more time talking about words than the things they refer to, a characteristic that can make Morris' film feel stubbornly frustrating.
At first glance, that is. More than any film this reviewer has seen in ages, "The Unknown Known" richly rewards a second viewing. The first time through, it's all too easy to focus on the many issues Rumsfeld's verbal miasma obscures rather than reveals, and to fault Morris for not pressing and pinning down his subject more effectively. The second time, one can't help but reflect that these bafflements are what the film ends up being about, really, and that they may be a more worthy and fascinating subject than the officious man who generates them.
Morris certainly knows his film isn't going to give many viewers what they will be hoping to find in it. In the first part of "The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld," a verbose but worthwhile four-part essay recently published in the New York Times, he notes, "When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more?"