Donald Rumsfeld has his own take on Socrates mantra that ‘the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.’ Or, in the words of the former Secretary of Defence:

There are known knowns; there are known unknowns; there are unknown unknowns; but there are also unknown knowns; that is to say, things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

The film is bookended with Donald Rumsfeld reading his less poetic take on the question of ‘what we know’ from a memo he dictated on February 4, 2004. This, seemingly, is the more refined version of an idea he first articulated publicly at a Defence Department briefing on February 12, 2002 when the groundwork was being laid for the subsequent invasion of Iraq.

It’s a tedious attempt at a kind of pop-philosophy that, if you’re not careful, has you forgetting what he’s actually talking about – that small point of Weapons of Mass Destruction (i.e. ‘unknown knowns’ that turned out to be ‘unknown unknowns’).

Now, it may seem odd that a film about Donald Rumsfeld is not actually about Donald Rumsfeld, but that’s what I would assert. Rather, it’s a film about the use and misuse of language and a study of how those in power manipulate it in an effort to control public opinion. As the film progresses it does become more about Don, but only because it becomes increasingly apparent that the linguistic tricks he used to mobilise support for the War in Iraq are being used against the purveyor by himself in an attempt to alleviate his guilt and justify the decisions he made. Well, perhaps this is somewhat of a simplification and I promise I’ll return to it. But first, here are some highlights from Don’s rhetorical gymnastics routine:

He calls the Vietnam War and the evacuation of American soldiers ‘the inevitable ugly ending to an unsuccessful effort.’ Well, if there were awards for understatements this would surely be a contender.

And this is what he has to say about President Nixon’s White House recordings: ‘All of us say things we shouldn’t say. That, on reflection, we wish we hadn’t said.’ Now take your pick of all the impeachable, racist and anti-Semitic things Nixon said on those recordings and measure this statement against it. This is mine: Speaking about Jamaica, Nixon said, ‘Blacks can’t run it. Nowhere, and they won’t be able to for a hundred years, and maybe not for a thousand…Do you know, maybe one black country that’s well run?’ I don’t think further comment is required here.

On September 11 he prefers the phrase ‘failure of imagination’ to ‘failure of intelligence.’ This doesn’t seem to marry up so well with the claim journalist Bob Woodward has made. In his book he quotes George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence, who, watching on TV as the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre, said, ‘I hope it’s not those guys from the flight schools in the Midwest.’

And the attempted assassination of Saddam Hussein at Dora Farm was instead ‘an act of war.’ When pressed on this, Don Rumsfeld – poker-faced – says, ‘We [the US government] don’t assassinate leaders of other countries.’ No doubt Fidel Castro would take umbrage with this characterisation.

Then there’s this memo (or ‘snowflake’ as their affectionately called – like a cat): ‘I want to make a list of things I’ve done at the Pentagon, like getting rid of words.’ As those words were uttered, I felt myself being slapped in the face – metaphorically of course – by the ghost of George Orwell. The culling of unnecessary words in order to refine and narrow the scope of debate has a name in Nineteen Eighty-Four: It’s called Newspeak.

It can’t be, I hear you pondering, all bad. Surely Don has some redeeming features. After all, Errol Morris’ previous film, The Fog of War, had the surprisingly lachrymose former Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, being remarkable frank and open. There comes a time in The Unknown Known when Don’s bottom lip too begins to quiver. Here, I thought, is the beginning of my decline; if I’m forced to write anything positive about this man I could slip into a well of self-loathing that I may never be able to climb out of; I will probably defend myself against accusations that I’m an apologist for Donald Rumsfeld, but that will merely be a façade.

The Don moistens, lips still vibrating, and comes right out with it – the story of him meeting a wounded US soldier:

It was an intensive care unit. The doctor said this guy’s not going to make it. We walked in; met the man; met the family. I don’t know what the word is –– But the family – the wife said, ‘I know he’ll make it.’ I think it was probably two, three, four weeks later and, sure as heck, the doctor said he made it. Unbelievable!

If The Don couldn’t find the right words, you’ll believe me when I say that I was dumbstruck. Not dumbstruck in the way blasé teenagers use the word; these comments simultaneously paralysed and muted me.

How, I thought as wrestled to reclaim control of my misbehaving body, can these be tears of joy? What about all those American soldiers who did die; what about all those innocent Iraqis – women and children – who were murdered on Don’s orders; what about Abu Ghraib? (Insert here any number of atrocities committed on his watch and continue asking rhetorical questions in the same vain.)

This takes me back to my original conundrum: Is all this posturing an attempt to alleviate his guilt and justify the decisions he made? The format Morris employs – the film is essentially an extended interview – should be perfect for examining questions like this. But I think I may be the wrong person to make these assessments – even incapable of making them.

From my perspective, it’s a ‘known known’ that both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were failures and that America’s invasion and occupation have contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism around the world. But I think Rummy would file these wars away as ‘known unknowns.’ He believes – and I think he will forever believe – that his neo-con outlook and all that goes with it is the best means of protecting the United States and, in many ways, that’s where the argument starts and stops for him.

Reflecting on Vietnam – that ‘unsuccessful effort’ – Morris asks Rumsfeld a question that couldn’t be more leading if it was walking him: ‘Do you think there’s lessons to be taken from this?’ To which The Don responds: ‘Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t. If that’s a lesson, then yes, that’s a lesson.’

It’s not that The Don can’t pick up the allusion in the question, it’s just that he’s been jockeying with these kinds of questions for the best part of three decades and he doesn’t get drawn into talking about anything he doesn’t want to.

He’s never uncomfortable or vulnerable and he’s never caught off-guard. He does, however, laugh in a way that makes for uncomfortable viewing at times. Morris often holds the shot for a few extra seconds at moments when one might expect him to show some remorse or make an expression of regret. But nothing. There are other times he laughs too long and at times when I can’t imagine others laughing with him. This curious cackle had me in quite a lather and made me ask questions about what it is that he’s trying to hide. And now I’m back where I started again, ruminating on whether I’m the right person to critique this film.

Then another chortle squeezes out of The Don and I think, ‘Damn straight I’m the right person to review this film; better me than some Midwestern Republican who describes that awkward, tainted laugh as ‘disarming.’’

So should you go and see this film about Donald Rumsfeld that’s not really about Donald Rumsfeld and that asks a lot of questions but really answers none? I, for one, would certainly encourage it, but with a warning attached: Leave you politics and preconceived ideas at door (if you can manage it). If you walk out loathing The Don as much as I did, drop me a line. I think we’d get on swimmingly.