Two legends of documentary filmmaking have seen better days. Last November I was disappointed to see Frederick Wiseman take the side of the university administration in its attempt to thwart student protests over escalating fees. If anything, Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”, opening at theaters everywhere today, is even more of a failure. It allows Donald Rumsfeld to defend himself for 103 minutes with hardly any tough questions from Morris, his interlocutor. And when he does stray into Mike Wallace “Sixty Minutes” territory, it is always with the absence of a follow-up. Indeed, the closest resemblance is not to Mike Wallace, but to Charlie Rose or Larry King, the masters of softball interviews.
The new film is obviously modeled on Morris’s 2003 “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” that gave the Johnson administration’s Pentagon boss a platform. That film was somewhat easier to swallow since it demonstrated that the war-maker was suffering from some pangs of conscience, including a scene with him weeping—one that it was easy to describe as a display of crocodile tears.
That was to be expected with a war in which American imperialism was the clear loser. With Iraq, there is no abiding sense that the Pentagon’s nose was bloodied. In fact, the main point that Rumsfeld makes throughout the film is that it was worth it, even going so far as to insist that there was no deliberate attempt to con the American people into believing that there were weapons of mass destruction.
On top of the ideological self-justifications, there is the added ordeal of putting up with Rumsfeld’s personality. He is one of the more insufferably vain and boring personalities that has ever emerged out of the military-industrial complex, an ambitious hustler who started out as a Nixon administration operative and moved upwards and onwards to the heights of the Pentagon under George W. Bush. With his cold smile and “gee whizzes”, and “goshes”, you hope for something—anything—that will knock him back on his heels. Needless to say, this is not to be expected from Errol Morris.
Morris and Rumsfeld even managed to frustrate the Washington Post, a pillar of the establishment:
In the film, Morris quotes a 2003 Washington Post poll showing that 69 percent of Americans believed Hussein was involved in 9/11, then cuts to Rumsfeld suggesting the same at a news conference when he sarcastically rejects suggestions to the contrary. “It isn’t a confrontation in the sense of [me] saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ ” Morris said. “But, golly gee whiz, it’s all there.”
If Morris’s oblique strategy invites frustration, so does Rumsfeld’s seeming inability or unwillingness to confront the implications of his policies and actions, whether they have to do with interrogation practices at Guantanamo Bay or the planning of the war itself. Whereas “The Fog of War” presented a fascinating portrait of McNamara as a historical figure reflecting, often painfully, on the events he witnessed or authored, in “The Unknown Known,” Rumsfeld often offers vague, inconclusive cliches: About Vietnam, he says simply, “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.” About Iraq, “Time will tell.”
In attempt to better understand the career of the much-heralded Errol Morris, I checked Wikipedia and was startled to discover that the “edgy” documentary filmmaker lost his edge long ago:
Although Morris has achieved fame as a documentary filmmaker, he is also an accomplished director of television commercials. In 2002, Morris directed a series of television ads for Apple Computer as part of a popular “Switch” campaign. The commercials featured ex-Windows users discussing their various bad experiences that motivated their own personal switches to Macintosh. One commercial in the series, starring Ellen Feiss, a high-schooler friend of his son Hamilton Morris, became an Internet meme. Morris has directed hundreds of commercials for various companies and products, including Adidas, AIG, Cisco Systems, Citibank, Kimberly-Clark’s Depend brand, Levi’s, Miller High Life, Nike, PBS, The Quaker Oats Company, Southern Comfort, EA Sports, Toyota and Volkswagen. Many of these commercials are available on his website.
Finally, it is necessary to take stock of the Errol Morris legacy. Giving scumbags the right to hold forth unchallenged for over a hundred minutes has been seen in two other highly regarded films. The first is “Act of Killing” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/07/20/fact-versus-fiction-in-three-new-films/), a film that Morris actually co-produced and that gives Indonesian death squad leaders a chance to tell their part of the story, as if there was one. The other is “The Gatekeepers” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/01/31/the-gatekeepers/), an Israeli documentary that gives a platform to the Zionist entity’s military judges, a bunch of disgusting war criminals who go unscathed.
Don’t bother with this crappy movie. You can watch FOX-TV for free.
“Watermark” is the second film I have seen that is based on the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian who specializes in landscapes of the most sterile and industrialized places on earth, particularly in China where the government is on a forced march to “modernize”. His first was the aptly named “Manufactured Landscapes” that I reviewed in 2007, about which I said:
He is not the typical photographer. As a teenager, he worked in automobile assembly plants and gold mines in Northern Ontario. Although he refrains from editorializing in his photographs (as does this very fine documentary), it is very clear that he is appalled by this spectacle of “progress”. In one scene, he shows a neighborhood in Shanghai that has been razed in order to make way for spanking-new high rises, with the exception of one old house whose elderly female inhabitant refuses to move. The high rises were simply built around her. The million or so villagers who were about to lose their homes because of the construction of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam had no choice. The film shows them being paid by the government to demolish their homes to make way for the new reservoir that will be created by the dam.
In “Watermark”, he returns to the same preoccupations but more closely focused on the rivers, lakes, and underground reservoirs and the communities they serve that are jeopardized by unsustainable practices such as China’s megadams and irrigation dependent on the Ogalalla aquifer.
There are interviews with people whose lives and culture are deeply intertwined with traditional and more sustainable use of the water systems such as Chinese abalone fisherman who work communally and a Native American from northern British Columbia.
As in Burtynsky’s first film, the footage is ravishingly beautiful even when what is being seen threatens the health of the planet, such as the Chinese megadam. There are also some fascinating meditations on the special power of water, as a scientist notes that without water there cannot be life itself. For a plant or a human embryo to grow, it needs water. In fact, the amniotic fluid an embryo grows in is like a tiny ocean. Another scientist observes that water owes its existence solely to the accident of a comet—a huge snowball in effect—colliding with the planet earth billions of years ago.