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The Unknown Known Blu-ray Review

The Unknown Known (2014) movie poster The Unknown Known

Theatrical Release: April 4, 2014 / Running Time: 103 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Errol Morris / Producers: Robert Fernandez, Amanda Branson Grill, Errol Morris

Cast: Donald Rumsfeld

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The new documentary The Unknown Known sits down with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and reflects on his long political career.
When a Hollywood filmmaker opts to examine a member of the George W. Bush administration, the two words that quickly come to mind are "hatchet job." One holds those suspicions even when the filmmaker in question is Errol Morris, the critically revered director whose previous portrait of a past Secretary of Defense, 2003's The Fog of War on Robert S. McNamara, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The Unknown Known starts with the juiciest material: September 11th and the subsequent military actions. The two events seem forever linked in the public's minds and Morris takes Rumsfeld to task for contributing to the confusion between the terrorist hijackings of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda and the potentially threatening policies of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Morris finds a couple of clips from one of Rumsfeld's press briefings that seems to undermine the innocence he professes regarding the two unrelated matters.

Donald Rumsfeld reads his memo and recalls his most recent stint in the White House in the 2014 documentary "The Unknown Known."

Rumsfeld describes September 11th, like Pearl Harbor, as "a failure of imagination" and Morris doesn't push too hard in presenting those pivotal attacks as something that could have been prevented. After twenty minutes of addressing these career-defining issues, the film steps back to document Rumsfeld's life in politics, which began with him running for Congress in 1962. It explains how Rumsfeld managed to be the rare member of President Richard Nixon's cabinet to not go down with the Watergate scandal; excerpts of Nixon's notorious audio recordings paint a negative view of Rumsfeld from Nixon and his closest aides.

Though critical of Nixon's absent-minded self-documentation, Rumsfeld himself has created a huge public record of his time in the White House with a trail of thousands of memos that form the basis of this film. Morris has Rumsfeld read his words from the early Noughties. Rumsfeld acquits himself in this task quite well, being caught in no lies and never contradicting himself on anything of importance. The memos establish Rumsfeld as a wordsmith of sorts; a number of them request or provide dictionary definitions of terms. The title itself comes from one of Rumsfeld's memos, though he can't even remember its original usage and Morris can't even assign significance to it beyond it being catchy and somehow relating to this film's intent.

A split-screen composite illustrate how some of the public blended Saddam Hussein with Osama bin Laden into one common enemy. In 1983, twenty years before declaring war on Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld shook Saddam Hussein's hand.

Morris isn't too interested in Rumsfeld the man; briefly mentioned, his decades-long marriage is one of the only aspects of his personal life addressed. He is more concerned with having Rumsfeld answer for the actions that make
the two-term Bush still so reviled by parts of the world and this very country. Morris doesn't make a very compelling case for hating Rumsfeld, not when using slow-motion to capture his devilish grin and certainly not when worrying about the conditions for detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The Unknown Known is polished and absorbing. Morris keeps things interesting visually, from superimposed dictionary definitions to random, pretty aerial photography. He also edits heavily to divert attention from the fact that much of the film is a man in a chair reading his old e-mails (with Morris' off-camera questions sounding suspiciously re-recorded). Unfortunately, the film does not have much to say, and nothing new or timely. There are plenty of interesting moments, like Rumsfeld sharing the two rejected letters of resignation he hand-wrote following the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, letters he still wishes were accepted (instead of his career ending with a late 2006 replacement) and reflections on his chances to be a Vice President, most realistically for Reagan. Rumsfeld's first-hand account of Gerald Ford's assassination attempt is also compelling, as is the historic vantage point born out of the longevity of Rumsfeld's career.

Well-received critically but a marginal box office draw (even for a limited release political documentary), The Unknown Known is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment.

The Unknown Known Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: July 1, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($24.98 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Unknown Known joins the small but rapidly growing class of 2.40:1 documentaries. The excellent video quality heightens the cinematic presentation, while the 5.1 DTS-HD master audio proves surprisingly great as well, benefiting from a Danny Elfman score that comes complete with children's choir. The Blu-ray leaves nothing to be desired in terms of picture and sound.

Errol Morris speaks on camera in "A Conversation." Morris documentary subjects Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara are among the former Secretaries of Defense discussing life in this 1989 televised annual report.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Unknown Known is joined by four substantial bonus features. First up is an audio commentary by director/producer Errol Morris, which gives him an opportunity to express the outrage and contempt he mostly keeps bottled up in the film.
Morris acknowledges Rumsfeld's accommodating nature (as he should, since there's no movie without it), reveals he interviewed Rumsfeld's wife, responds to criticisms, speculates why Bush picked Rumsfeld despite disliking him, and remembers Roger Ebert, to whom the film is kind of bizarrely dedicated.

On the video front, we get "A Conversation with Errol Morris" (8:15, HD), in which the director talks about convincing Rumsfeld to be interviewed for the film and what the experience yielded. It isn't much but it's far more easily digested than the sporadic commentary.

Briefly excerpted in the film, "Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense" (56:53, SD) is a December 1, 1989 conference in Nashville featuring Rumsfeld and his fellow former Defense Secretaries Melvin Laird, Frank Carlucci, Caspar Weinberger, James Schlesinger, and Robert McNamara. Hedrick Smith and Henry Trewhitt ask the government officials about the changing world, the Soviet threat, the potential unification of Germany, arms reductions, Gorbachev, and the future. It's an interesting, unusual and historically valuable inclusion, though still what you'd expect from 25-year-old hour of talking heads public television.

Errol Morris has plenty to say about Donald Rumsfeld in his four-part op-ed article "The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld." The title appears over an ocean in the film and as part of the Blu-ray's menu montage.

A rare text-based bonus is found in Morris' thorough, annotated four-part op-ed article "The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld." It further allows the filmmaker to discuss Rumsfeld with his personal biases in plain sight. Morris calls attention to Rumsfeld's evasiveness with briefing transcript excerpts and interviews a number of reporters who experienced it first-hand. The language-obsessed director also ruminates further on the title phrase and its historical applications, analyzes Rumsfeld's "failure of imagination" assessment in a chat with Thomas Schelling,
whose foreword to a Pearl Harbor book caught Rumsfeld's eye, and talks with astronomer Martin Rees, the apparent origin of Rumsfeld's "the absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence" quote, first uttered in regards to extraterrestrial life.

The disc opens with menu-inaccessible HD trailers for Fed Up and Inequality for All. Sadly, you'll have to look elsewhere for Unknown Known's own trailer.

The dramatically scored menu loops a montage of clips. Unfortunately, this extends the streak of Weinstein/Anchor Bay Blu-rays that neither resume playback nor allow you to set bookmarks, making broken-up viewings of the film difficult. No inserts, slipcover or reverse artwork liven up the plain blue keepcase, but at least the disc sports a full-color label adapted from the orangey poster/cover art.

A younger Donald Rumsfeld is photographed as the Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

There are no grand revelations or discoveries in The Unknown Known, but Errol Morris' newest documentary at least manages to sustain interest with its interview and portrait of one of the men most responsible for shaping the world politically in the 21st century. The Blu-ray serves up first-rate video/audio plus a substantial collection of extras at least worth sampling.

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Reviewed July 5, 2014.



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The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment, and Anchor Bay Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.