Venice: American tricksters under scrutiny in 'The Armstrong Lie' and 'The Unknown Known'
The few victories Morris claims over his subject are small ones. When Morris brings up the simple defeat he suffered to George Bush in the contest to be Ronald Reagan's running mate, asking if he believes he missed the chance to be President, Rumsfeld's lips purse up a little too abruptly as he concedes, "It's possible." For all the drastically unflattering circumstances that led to his resignation in 2006, he seems more perturbed by a loss he can't pass off as voluntary.
And on the interview's umpteenth reiteration of his signature knowns-and-unknowns spiel -- aphoristic bosh, essentially, designed to defuse almost any given question -- he finally comes unstuck, if only for a moment. Re-reading one of his famously innumerable memos, visualised throughout the film either as snowflakes or looming pillars of "Brazil"-like bureaucracy, he stumbles and admits that he may have incorrectly flipped a "known" or "unknown" here and there. It's a small error, played for laughs, but it's his only moment of doubt in the film, caught out as he is by his own obfuscation of the truth.
If Gibney finally scores more points over his subject than Morris does, that's because his film at least has the advantage of multiple talking heads to fortify his stance, most of them anti-Armstrong. (I did wonder, amid the cadre of former friends and associates brought before the camera, if Armstrong's ex-fiancee Sheryl Crow was approached for interview, given what a crucial supporting role she played, at the apex of his career, in enhancing his fairytale celebrity. I can't imagine it was a stone left unturned.)
Morris, as is his wont, has only his subject to contend with -- the more striking approach, but the more limiting one when the subject won't be engaged. In contrast to the professionally televisual construction of "The Armstrong Lie," "The Unknown Known" shakes out its maker's trademark bag of formal techniques and technical embellishments, including an overegged score from Danny Elfman that plays on two definitions of horror, in an apparent attempt to make the interview content seem more dramatic by association. Morris has a more artistic filmmaking sensibility than Gibney -- there's a reason his film is in Competition at Venice, and Gibney's isn't. But he can also be awfully literal-minded in his choice of imagery, as when the phrase "a black hole of words" is accompanied by a digital graphic of words swirling in a vortex.
For their respective shortcomings, however, the chief reward of both films -- I was about to type "pleasure," before rethinking -- is watching their subjects in repose. If there can be such a thing as defiant defeat, Lance Armstrong appears to have nailed it. Twitchy and hunted-looking as he fields Gibney's questions without affect, he's a different man from the guy who once brazenly rebuffed all enquiries about his drug-taking with such hypocritical self-righteousness, but his self-image is still undented: he still believes he's the best, and did what he needed to do to prove that.
Rumsfeld, meanwhile, seems not to have changed a whit from his time in the hot seat His unflappability is as compelling as it is enervating, perhaps because it's a comfortable side effect of the limits of his consciousness. (Or, indeed, conscience.) Has Errol Morris failed to illuminate Donald Rumsfeld, or is there simply nothing in the shadows? Lance Armstrong could probably have taken a leaf from Rumsfeld's book. Gibney's cleverly selected archive footage reveals that his tack has always been so defensive, it's a wonder he lived his lie for as long as he did. As one of these guys said -- though it could have been either -- everything seems amazing in retrospect.
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