The best news at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF for short) is that Brit director Steve McQueen’s much anticipated 12 Years A Slave—starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man of color who was kidnapped and sold into bondage in the Deep South in 1841—is as extraordinary as everybody says it is. Aside from Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a very different sort of cinematic coup, no other movie I’ve seen here can touch it, and I’m pretty sure no other movie on the subject of slavery can either. If you couldn’t stand Django Unchained, McQueen’s far more ruthless and perceptive dismantling of the Peculiar Institution’s social and sexual pathologies opens stateside next month.
Then again, what with TIFF’s usual salad bar of touted, untouted, and never-to-be-heard-of-again offerings no doubt I’ve missed a lot, and not always by choice, considering that a rare technical snafu—TIFF is usually sterling—turned the mobbed press screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom into Mandela: Short Jog to Prison under an hour in. I did see enough to say with some confidence that a) Idris Elba is appropriately towering in the title role, and b) a biopic is a biopic is a biopic. While this one is far from a disgrace to its subject, it does feature dialogue like a somber, “Do you think I should join the ANC?” and the soon-to-be-ditched first Mrs. Mandela’s inevitable, “You care about all the children in South Africa—except your own.”
But let’s get to a flick sure to have a special fascination for Prospect readers. Though most of my reviewer pals were queuing for another movie entirely on Monday morning and looked quizzical when I wordlessly heffalumped on by, there was one TIFF premiere this year that no appalled connoisseur of recent U.S. history would dream of missing, and I didn’t. Namely, The Unknown Known, documentarian Errol Morris’s up-close portrait of onetime Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld—a man celebrated for not knowing his own aphorisms from a hole in the ground, including the saying about known knowns, unknown knowns, and so on that provides Morris’s title.
The movie is a sequel of sorts to 2003’s The Fog of War, Morris’s Oscar-winning profile of Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. But while the elderly McNamara was remorseful about his role in overseeing our Southeast Asia quagmire—however belatedly or conveniently, depending on your level of cynicism—self-doubt isn’t in his 21st-century counterpart’s lexicon. Over half a decade after he left office, Rummy’s undiminished, chucklesome brio may remind you of that hand shooting out of the grave at the end of Brian de Palma’s Carrie.
No one’s ever going to call him dull. Not only did he have the best brain of anyone in Bush 43’s inner circle—in the classic Ivy League mold, to be sure, meaning it was all cunning and no wisdom—but he was its only genuine wit. Yet neither of those is a moral quality, and Rumsfeld’s complacency is even more abrasive now that he’s had six years to ponder—or not—his disgraceful place in history. The only might-have-been he cops to is a reflection that W. might have done better to accept his resignation and start over after Abu Ghraib, but even that is a tactical judgment, not a mea culpa.
Then as now, the vital ingredient in Rumsfeld’s self-regard is his notion that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The problem there is his capacious definition of fools, which more or less comprises the planet at large aside from Dick Cheney—and he’s not so sure about Dick, as the saying goes. It’s uncanny how compulsively his belief in his own sophistication when it comes to understanding this wicked world’s ways operates to shut down inquiry and turn retrospective judgments moot. “Everything is astonishing in hindsight,” he airily says, dismissing America’s failure to anticipate Pearl Harbor—and, by implication, 9/11, though he’s just bragged up his own pre-9/11 memos advocating vigilance about potential threats.
He draws an astounded “Really?” from his interlocutor—it’s Morris’s most human moment—by claiming he never bothered to read the Bush-administration memos providing a legal figleaf for waterboarding and other tortures. “I’m not a lawyer,” Rummy shrugs. “What would I know?” In reply, a helpless citizen can only sputter like Marley’s ghost: “Business? Mankind was your business.” But such reproaches clearly never disturb Ebenezer Rumsfeld’s sleep. Trust me, The Unknown Known is a spellbinder.
In other news, Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, starring Toronto MVP Benedict Cumberbatch—he’s in three different movies here, including 12 Years A Slave—as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, neither valorizes Assange nor invalidates Wikileaks’s goals. That is, the movie is welcomely unsimplistic, the reason it’s likely to irritate zealots on both sides of the ideological divide. Though Condon’s over-busy handling of the material is all too often visually and sonically jacked up at lucidity’s expense, Cumberbatch’s performance—giving us Assange as rock star, manipulator, egomaniac, and all-around guy with issues, while never letting us forget that he by and large chose the right enemies—is an uncommonly riveting portrait of a radical turned cult leader turned ... well, we don’t know yet, do we? Your move, Ecuador.