Vet documentarian Carl Colby’s ambitious, decades-spanning film about his CIA spymaster father delves deeply into historical events William Colby helped to shape, from his OSS days during WWII and his extensive involvement in the Vietnam War to his whistle-blowing testimony before Congress. With several current political figures seen here in their younger incarnations, the pic’s re-examination of covert actions seems particularly timely. Oddly, the director’s personal connection with his subject adds little warmth, filmmaker Carl proving nearly as unemotional as his deadpan dad. Worthy but sobersided docu opens Sept. 23 at Gotham’s Lincoln Plaza before inevitable smallscreen airings.
The portrait of William Colby painted by his son, and by the filmmaker’s 85 interviewees (including past and present politicos, reporters, friends and CIA colleagues), is that of a deeply conflicted man. Only with much difficulty could his unshakable faith in the rightness of his actions be reconciled with the day-to-day directives of the administrations he faithfully served.
He opposed the blanket bombing of Vietnam, a country whose grace and beauty he appreciated (interpolated footage of heavy bombing attacks show whole green sections of the countryside erupting into flame). But his belief in more covert counter-insurgency methods engendered the infamous Phoenix Plan, which placed intelligence gathering in the hands of the South Vietnamese forces, with little American oversight. Viet Cong were openly tortured and murdered, leading to iconic images that turned many Americans against the war.
In the demand for more transparency after the lies and deceptions of Watergate, William Colby, in his new role as head of the CIA (he served from 1973-76), was called before Congress some 32 times in a single year, and the film excerpts several hostile sessions. His belief in the Constitution clashed with his loyalty to the administration (that of President Ford, who allegedly had little use for Colby’s scruples). One of the pic’s most telling photo montages depicts William Colby in a meeting with Ford, Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, as he vainly tries to convince them not to abandon loyal Vietnamese.
William Colby corroborated reports of CIA assassinations and the agency’s surveillance of thousands of ordinary Americans (all previously reported in journalist Seymour Hersh’s “Family Jewels” expose). Ultimately, he revealed far more top-secret information than the administration could accept, albeit far less than Congress angrily demanded. He was replaced by George Bush Sr.
Although much of the documentary is given over to its subject’s private life (and, by extension, the director’s childhood), including several in-depth conversations with his wife, Barbara, whose memories of Vietnam color the otherwise colorless testimonials, “The Man Nobody Knew” never feels particularly intimate, even when discussing the death of William Colby’s epileptic daughter and his subsequent guilt over having had no patience for her illness.
The mystery of William Colby’s life extended far beyond his resignation. With no explanation, he left his faithful wife of 40 years, later remarrying. Sometime later, he died in a boating accident, the strange circumstances of which are examined here but not resolved.