The Unknown Known


Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

(2014) Documentary (Radius) Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris. Directed by Errol Morris

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He sits in an immaculate suit that speaks of good taste. He has an almost professorial air about him, discoursing easily on philosophy, language and politics. He has a grandfatherly smile that beams out at the screen, but when you look deeper there’s an almost Machiavellian calculation going on behind his eyes. He is former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and there are those who despise him with a passion – and others who hail him as an American hero.

Now in his 80s, he is remarkably spry and articulate. During his tenure in public office which started in Congress in the 1960s, he wrote what he called “snowflakes” – memos that discourse on every subject you can imagine, ranging from dictionary definitions to discussions of military strategy. He has served as Defense Secretary to three different presidents – Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, more than any man in American history. He has presided over the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, starting wars that have not ended to this day, making them the longest armed conflict in American history.

On the other side of the camera is Oscar-winning documentary director Errol Morris, a truth-seeker who has challenged the judicial system as well as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He would be one of those sorts who would tend to despise Rumsfeld. On paper, it would seem to be a volatile mix, but both men are far too polite and professional to allow an emotional response derail their purpose here.

The movie mainly consists of Rumsfeld reading his memos aloud along with his interviews with Morris, mixed with archival footage and some graphic animations. However, it is the interview with Morris that takes center stage. Rumsfeld is smooth, even charming. He sidesteps questions he doesn’t want to answer, obfuscates often when he does and sometimes flat-out contradicts himself. At one point Rumsfeld claims to not have read the report on misconduct at Abu Gharib prison, to which an incredulous Morris inadvertently blurts out “REALLY?!?!?”

Still, his Midwestern grandfatherly demeanor lulls one into underestimating him, a tactic he’s used throughout his political career. That demeanor hides a sharp, analytical mind. As much as I dislike his policies and his philosophies, I can’t help but admire the intelligence, and trust me that’s not something I ever thought I’d say about anyone in the Bush administration.

Danny Elfman’s score nicely enhances the film, although from time to time there’s a bit of false bombast, but overall I noticed the music only in a positive way. Really though, there’s not much to say about this film; it is well-enough made from a technical standpoint, but it is the subject that is the attraction, a contradictory but compelling individual whom history has not yet fully judged and it will be decades before it does.

Still, there is an awful lot of watching Rumsfeld and it might get a little wearing after awhile. For those political junkies looking to try and make sense of the man, I doubt you’ll come away feeling that you know him any better than you did before. Still, as maddening as Rumsfeld is to the left, one can’t help think that we’re all getting played just a little and that truthfully, it is unlikely we’ll ever know the real Donald Rumsfeld.

WHY RENT THIS: Rumsfeld is engaging but elusive. Terrific music.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwhelming amount of talking head time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Morris interviewed Rumsfeld on eleven separate occasions and shot over 33 hours of film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Morris where he describes the process of getting Rumsfeld to agree to the interviews. There is also a Georgia Public TV production called Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense in which six former Secretaries of Defense (including Rumsfeld) are interviewed by former Frontline correspondent Hedrick Smith as well as an op-ed piece by Morris for the New York Times.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $301,604 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix , Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fog of War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Iraqi Odyssey

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The Prisoner: or, How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair


Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

Yunis Khatayer Abbas awaits arrest in the front yard of his home.

(2006) Documentary (Truly Indie/Magnolia) Yunis Khatayer Abbas, Benjamin Thompson. Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

In the miasma that was the U.S. involvement in Iraq, it wasn’t uncommon for overeager American military intelligence to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens who had done nothing wrong. It is not unusual for an occupying force to behave with paranoia; after all, it is actually true that the population is out to get them.

Such was the case of Yunis Khatayer Abbas, a respected journalist who had been imprisoned by the Saddam Hussein regime for expressing views critical of the regime. We see Abbas in an anonymous hotel room, dignified and dapper, his goatee flecked with grey but his eyes much younger than that as he describes (and we see footage of) his arrest at the hands of American military forces. Along with two brothers, Abbas is accused of conspiring to assassinate Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Abbas would be held for over nine months in the notorious Abu Gharib prison. During that time he would undergo a goodly number of inquisitions and some torture both mental and physical. He would also be befriended by Thompson, an American soldier on duty in Abu Gharib who utilized Abbas as a translator – his English is in the main flawless although from time to time he makes the occasional syntax error. Thompson, who gradually comes to believe that Abbas is innocent of the crimes he is accused of, tries unsuccessfully to get Abbas released but as with all things military the wheels grind slowly.

Filmmakers Tucker and Epperlein (who are married in real life) first met Abbas during the filming of their previous documentary Gunner Palace about American troops stationed in the lavish palace of Uday Hussein. They augment their footage with home video footage and cartoon-like animations that are as amusing as they are unsettling.

The story itself is very compelling as we witness a man who supports the United States protest his innocence over and over again as those who provide the faulty intelligence that put him in prison refuse to admit they were wrong even though all the evidence seems to indicate that they are; nonetheless they are forced to cover their ass and hope that Abbas is broken into confessing that he is a terrorist. Abbas however never breaks and by the film’s end you’ll wind up admiring the man’s quiet dignity.

Like many documentaries, there is an inordinate time viewing the interviews with the subject and despite the bells and whistles added here, there just really isn’t a way to make a talking head all that interesting. Overcoming that, the story and the personality of Abbas will stay with you and lead you to once again question our involvement in this country and the methods we used while we were there. It will come to pass that someday down the line it will be a time and events that our descendants will not be proud of.

WHY RENT THIS: Compact and tight. Compelling story with nice cartoon-like visuals.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a bit rough and there are some fairly mature thematic elements.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The initial arrest, shown here, was filmed during the directors’ last documentary Gunner Palace.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,103 during its domestic release; overseas numbers and production budget unavailable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Standard Operating Procedure

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Son of No One

My Country, My Country


Dr. Riyadh works both sides of the fence.

Dr. Riyadh works both sides of the fence.

(2006) Documentary (Zeitgeist) Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, David Brancaccio, Carlos Valenzuela, Aaron Castle, Kristopher Scarcliff, Maria Hinojosa, Andre Remmers, Richard Armitage, Edward Wong, Scott Farren-Price, Peter Towndrow, Edward Robertson, Renato Gonclaves. Directed by Laura Poitras

There are many reasons to be against having our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here in the United States, we tend to look at it from the standpoint of the safety of our soldiers and that is certainly valid. We want the brave men and women of our armed forces home safe. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t need to be in harm’s way.

We don’t, however, generally look at it from the viewpoint of the occupied territory. One award-winning filmmaker, Laura Poitras (whose Flag Wars won a Peabody Award in 2003) spent nine months on her own in Iraq during the height of our presence there in 2005. She followed Dr. Riyadh al-Adhadh, a physician who runs a free clinic in Baghdad, a father of six and an activist in the Iraqi Muslim party and a devout Sunni.

He is running for public office during Iraq’s first democratic elections since the fall of Saddam Hussein but has an uphill climb on that score – many of his fellow Sunnis are boycotting the election, believing them to be a sham and an American manipulation. While Dr. Riyadh is an outspoken critic of the American occupation (we see him visit the notorious Abu Gharib prison and interview some of the inmates through the barbed wire fence), he believes in democracy for the Iraqi people as being the best outcome possible for them.

Poitras also spent time with a team of Australian security contractors whose job turned out to be a lot more than insuring the delivery of ballots to and from the polling systems – at one point they make a weapon buying run to northern Iraq. She was also allowed to attend American military briefings, getting the point of view of the occupiers who were fully aware that the elections would provide the perfect opportunity for dissidents to kill lots of people and wanted to insure the safety of those wishing to vote.

We get a sense of the deep division within the Islamic community of Iraq, as moderates and extremists vie for control of the country. We also get a sense of the utter chaos that this great country has descended to, at least as of 2005. I certainly hope that things have improved there since then although I have to be honest – my gut feeling is that they haven’t, at least more than negligibly.

I wound up truly admiring Dr. Riyadh; he is a man committed to the betterment of his community and his country. He was fully aware that his positions which he was unafraid to make public put a target squarely on his back and on that of his family (they joke about it near the end of the film). Poitras also had a target on her back but surprisingly it was from her own government; she was observed filming from a rooftop during an ambush sequence (which she denied at the time and later admitted to); detractors claimed she had prior knowledge of the attack and since the filming she has been put on a Homeland Security watchlist as a terrorist sympathizer, which is absolute bollocks in my opinion but then, it’s not backed on anything concrete other than my belief that her status is more of a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the HSA. I would assume if they had any concrete evidence that she was supporting anti-American behavior that she’d have been arrested by now.

In any case, I found the film to be an objective look at the occupation from the viewpoint of the occupied, one which we should be considering. I got the sense that Dr. Riyadh and other Iraqis are not so much anti-American but anti-occupation; they want their country back and who could blame them? It’s sad however that Poitras has been regarded with suspicion and harassment for presenting these views; perhaps while we are so concerned with attacks on the Second Amendment, we might also take a look at attacks on the First as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A look at occupied Iraq in as an objective a fashion as you’re likely to ever see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: I found it hard to follow in places and at times wasn’t sure what was going on.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and a little bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: First aired as a part of the prestigious PBS P.O.V. documentary series, this was an Oscar nominee for best documentary feature in 2007 although it didn’t win.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is 15 minutes of additional footage shot at Abu Gharib.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33,620 on an unreported production budget; I’m guessing the movie probably broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghosts of Abu Gharib

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Accidents Happen

Standard Operating Procedure


Detainees at Abu Gharib.

Detainees at Abu Gharib.

(Sony Classics) Sarah Denning, Jeff L. Green, Merry Grissom, Daniel Novy, Lynddie England, Shaun Russell, Joshua Feinman, Janis Karpinski, Cyrus King. Directed by Errol Morris.

The legacy of the George W. Bush presidency is a complex one. Most will remember the economic meltdown that precipitated the fall of the Republicans in the 2008 elections. What may wind up as being far more disturbing in the long run was the advocacy of torture that took place at Guantanamo Bay and at Abu Gharib.

In 2004, photographs came to light that seemed to be incontrovertible evidence that the U.S. military was torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad. Seven soldiers, all below the rank of Sergeant, were convicted in separate Courts Martials.

Morris, disturbed by the photographs, wondered about not what was in the photos, for that was very clear, but what was outside the frames. Many of the pictures seemed staged to him (and in fact were); who was staging them and why?

Janis Karpinski, commandant of the prison (who would later be demoted for allowing these abuses during her watch) makes it clear that there not only was torture going on in her prison, but that it was done by independent contractors engaged by higher-ups and with the approval of the Pentagon. Not only does she claim that she is being made a scapegoat (as are the guards who are depicted in the photographs), she alleges that the genesis for the abuses at Abu Gharib go as far up as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The interviews here are curiously emotionless. The camera is an unblinking eye focusing tightly on the faces of the subjects, a Morris trademark. Danny Elfman’s primarily electronic score makes a discordant soundtrack, making the unsettling subject matter seem even more so.

The interviewees are somewhat matter of fact about some pretty horrible things. England, infamous for holding a collapsed Iraqi prisoner named Gus on a leash, was scarcely 20 at the time of the photographs. She was in love with a 35-year-old soldier named Charles Graner, who seems to be the invisible presence staging the pictures and who was one of those sentenced to prison time by the military tribunal (the Army refused to allow him to be interviewed for the film).

They speak about these events with a mixture of sorrow, repentance, resentment and incredulity. More than one of them says that the culture for prisoner humiliation had already been established and they were just following the general pattern of behavior at the time.

It is a disturbing documentary not only for the images of abuse (that are shown in great detail onscreen) but also for its examination of the military mind. The justifications are eerily reminiscent of the excuses given at Nuremberg – we were just following orders. While the military needs the chain of command to function, it is also a soldier’s responsibility to refuse orders that are morally reprehensible. It is also the soldier’s responsibility to act in accordance with the laws of their own country.

The questions Morris asks are legitimate; the answers not always easy nor always given. We will probably never truly see justice rendered for the events at Abu Gharib, nor those ultimately responsible being held accountable. However, this is a gripping film that truly inspires a questioning of what we are told, and what we are not told. We are left to doubt whether our military is acting as representatives of our values. Perhaps that’s the most frightening legacy of all.

WHY RENT THIS: A much more in-depth examination of the atrocities at Abu Gharib than we received from our mass media. A chilling examination as to what happens when soldiers don’t question their orders or their situation.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While there are allegations that those higher up in the chain of responsibility went unpunished, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of attempt to ferret out who those people were.

FAMILY VALUES: There are graphic images of prisoner abuse, and descriptions of torture.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first documentary to be nominated for the prestigious Golden Bear award, the highest honor given to a participant at the Berlin Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Additional interviews, as well as extensions of the interviews onscreen are presented. The Blu-Ray edition also includes a panel discussion on the use of torture and how the International community can protest it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Curse of the Golden Flower