Before getting onto the film I should make a few disclaimers. There is a popular view that Donald Rumsfeld was a catastrophic US secretary of defence. I do not share that view. There is also a view that his most famous phrase – about known knowns, known unknowns and so on – was a display of laughable ignorance.  I think it one of the best descriptions anyone has ever produced of the challenges posed by intelligence. And finally I suppose there is a school of people out there who shudder at the name. I’m not among them. As well as being a great public servant – both the youngest and oldest defence secretary in US history – I regard Donald Rumsfeld as an unusually likeable person.

I say all that because Errol Morris’s latest film is almost certainly not aimed at people like me, but rather at that public who hold the consensus view which recalls Rumsfeld chiefly for his undeniably hubristic power-height of 2001-4.

They will chiefly go to see The Unknown Known in the hope that somewhere in it Morris has managed to get Donald Rumsfeld to do what he got an earlier US defence secretary (Robert McNamara) to do in his well-timed 2003 film The Fog of War: that is, deliver a moving mea culpa. In fact when The Fog of War came out it was hard not to view it as a pre-emptive parable about Donald Rumsfeld, with McNamara standing in for him and the Vietnam war standing in for Iraq. But any folks expecting such a replay will leave The Unknown Known disappointed.

From the 33 hours of interviews which Morris conducted with Rumsfeld for the present film, there are, in the final edit, perhaps two moments when Morris trips Rumsfeld up – and at least the same number of occasions on which Rumsfeld bests Morris. I’d be willing to bet that more examples of the latter found their way onto the cutting-room floor than did the former. Rumsfeld is a formidable verbal pugilist who takes an unusual pleasure in the well-crafted sentence and relishes the syntactically satisfying reply. In fact it was one such moment from 2003 that sticks in my mind as the moment when I feared he was a goner.

The initial invasion of Iraq had worked superbly and for a now forgotten moment Rumsfeld was regarded with near unanimous admiration, if not love. Then, with Saddam Hussein and the WMD still missing, a journalist asked him if it was possible that, since allied forces had not found them, the WMD did not, after all, exist? Though I can’t locate the clip, Rumsfeld replied along the lines of, ‘Well we haven’t found Saddam Hussein yet either, and no one’s saying he never existed.’ And then, to someone off camera he added, ‘Does that work? I like that.’ I don’t want to generalise, but I would say that it isn’t possible to survive hubris of that height.

Anyhow, Morris regrettably doesn’t include that moment in his film, but he does include other interesting archive footage. Beautifully made, like The Fog of War, Morris aims to travel deeper than the simple agitprop documentaries of, say, Michael Moore. Morris skips through Rumsfeld’s early life and tries, though fails, to land some blows on Rumsfeld for his service in the Nixon and Ford administrations.  I may be wrong, but I think Rumsfeld comes out of this just fine. Though other viewers may feel that there are enough lingering shots of Nixon with Rumsfeld and Kissinger to persuade them to come away with the general feeling that Rumsfeld mixed with a bad crowd.

But of course it is the recent history that people are interested in. So what of that?  Morris manages again to elicit regret and apologies over the appalling loss of military discipline in Abu Ghraib prison that caused Rumsfeld to twice offer his resignation to the president – and twice have that offer refused. He also gets some confusion from Rumsfeld over what was and was not claimed about Saddam Hussein and WMD in the run-up to war in 2003. Here his subject enters alleyways of what his opponents will certainly regard as deliberate circumlocution: ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ etc.

Yet where Morris is trying to elicit his subject’s views – rather than trip him up – the film is genuinely fascinating. Rumsfeld’s account of his single meeting with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s is superb, as are his views on Hussein’s deputy, Tariq Aziz. Of Hussein he says that anybody who surrounds himself with pictures of himself and statues, and lives the life of a proper dictator risks some day believing the image they have themselves put up. Of Hussein, Rumsfeld says, ‘He was living his image of himself. Which was pretend.’ There are several other outstanding moments of pure Rumsfeld-ism. For instance, ‘How do you think they got away with 9/11?’ Morris asks him, in full goading mode. ‘It seems amazing in retrospect.’ To which Rumsfeld replies cooly, ‘Everything seems amazing in retrospect.’ Elsewhere, did any of Nixon’s successors take the same step as Nixon in recording everything that happened in the Oval office? Not that Rumsfeld knew of.  In his experience, he says, presidents ‘don’t fall into the same potholes as their predecessors. More often than not they make original mistakes. We all do.’

At the very end Morris asks Rumsfeld why he has agreed to be interviewed for this film. It is a good question, to which Rumsfeld says he’s darned if he knows. But it comes at an interesting moment. It comes immediately after Rumsfeld has corrected the public perception of what so-called torture techniques were in fact used, and more importantly has also provided the inevitable moment of welling-up. But this is not Rumsfeld doing a McNamara. It comes as he is telling the story of a visit to a hospital for US servicemen wounded in Iraq.

He relates how on one occasion he went into a ward where the doctor told him that it would take a miracle for one particular young man to make it. Rumsfeld wells up as he describes meeting the man’s family and young wife beside the bedside. It seems as though perhaps the former defence secretary is about to perform the mea culpa that Morris is hoping for. But then Rumsfeld describes how he went back a few days later and the miracle had occurred. The young soldier had survived and pulled through. Rumsfeld takes inspiration from this and what it shows about America.

It is a magnificent moment. It is also Rumsfeld sticking two fingers up to Morris. It is an anti-McNamara moment. Knowing what Morris has come for he gives him something else. Of course he knows what he is doing. As he does by appearing in this film. He has weighed things up and on balance decided there is more to gain than lose from subjecting himself to this. From my watching of it – and to the evident chagrin of Errol Morris – I think Rumsfeld may be proved right.

Tags: Abu Ghraib, defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris, Film, George bush, Iraq war, Neoconservatism, Robert McNamara, Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz, The Fog of War, WMD