Title: The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby
Director: Carl Colby
Both individually and collectively, Americans may profess a desire for honesty, but the intrigue of serial deception — as a practiced tradecraft, and almost an art — makes compelling subject matter of state espionage, spies and double agents. So a movie like “The Man Nobody Knew,” a documentary about former Central Intelligence Agency head William Colby, directed by his son, Carl, would seem to offer a fantastic chance to explore the topic from a unique perspective, to richly plumb that different psychological and ethical space that trickery and lying on such a grand scale requires. Unfortunately, “The Man Nobody Knew” is neither fish nor fowl, and can’t get off the ground as either a unique familial memoir or a uniquely accessed view of recent world history.
Colby, wiry and discreet, began his career as an OSS officer, parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, working behind enemy lines to foster dissent and effect sabotage. Later, rising through the CIA, he helped sway elections against the Communist Party in Italy, and eventually ran the controversial Phoenix Program in Vietnam (tabbed as a “kill squad” by its detractors), which sparked today’s legacy of counter-insurgency. Colby is most well known, however, for defying the wishes of President Ford after rising to the rank of head of the CIA, and opening up to Congress about some of the international spy agency’s most tightly held “extra-legal” operations, including attempted assassinations and coup support in various countries around the world.
Despite the possessiveness of its title, and the way it clutches its now-deceased subject to its bosom, there’s a puzzling lack of commitment on the part of Colby to the personal quality of the narrative. Family photos are aplenty, and William’s long-time wife (the director’s mother) sits for several interviews, which are parceled out amidst much historical footage, and chats with other interviewees. But there are huge gaps in family history, and the filmmaker never never solicits the opinions of his siblings, which would have given the movie crucial, added dimension. Most problematically, though, Colby includes a mess of awkward first-person narration; it pops up at weird times, uncomfortably juxtaposed, and lacks the depth and honesty for which one yearns, since Colby never really wades into the breach and significantly discusses what he knew about his father and thought him to be doing at the time versus what he knows now.
This gives “The Man Nobody Knew” a quality of fitful engagement. At its core, Colby’s film is seemingly about the blinkered awakening of a conscience, and how his father, after Vietnam and President Nixon’s Watergate disgrace, felt the need to increase transparency, by degrees, while also safeguarding national secrets. This third act revelation, though, gets the bum’s rush at the expense of much historical set-up. Some of these passages — about Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.’s apparently singular role in the overthrow of Vietnam’s President Diem, for instance, three weeks before the eventual assassination of President Kennedy — are shocking, and newsworthy. But other stretches come off as staid, lackluster middle school filmstrips. And Colby, too, brooks no discussion about his father’s mysterious death. These shortcomings combine to make a movie that dances around intrigue, but never consistently engages it. In death, as in life, William Colby remains something of an enigma.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.