The only person who would have ever thought about making a film documentary of former CIA Director William Colby must be related to him. In fact, his son Carl Colby did just that. William Colby was a driven individual who lived during interesting times and ended up in a fascinating job; however, this does not increase his suitability to carry an entire documentary.
Intercutting very intriguing historical film vignettes, nostalgic and archived pictures, and one-on-one interviews with some very famous and influential public servants from the last few decades, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of my Father CIA Spymaster William Colby charts the course of Colby’s life from the attack on Pearl Harbor until his death five decades later. The main subjects include Colby’s involvement in the earliest form of the Office of Strategic Services, his time in Italy in the 1950s, his back and forth involvement in Vietnam from America’s earliest involvement to its last gasp, and his controversial stint as CIA Director.
The historical film footage dug up and effectively edited is the best part of this documentary. A lot of this footage is from familiar places we have all seen in documentaries before, but this footage seems new and freshly unearthed. There are scenes from the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack with lifeless casualties floating in the water, there are scenes of brutal interrogation methods from the Vietnamese jungle, and most compelling, there are scenes where we listen to President Kennedy and his brother discuss overthrowing the South Vietnamese President. Colby was the CIA station chief in Vietnam from 1959-1962 and knew the players very well there. The arrival of new Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, his destructive heavy-handedness, and the eventual coup and assassination of President Diem and his brother are shocking to see even in 2011.
Vietnam and its Phoenix Program would go on to define and represent Colby for the rest of his life. President Nixon appointed him CIA Director in 1973 after he fired Richard Helms for not helping enough to cover up Watergate. However, Colby was not a party man. He would not roll over and play fetch much to the consternation of President Ford. Ford appreciated loyalty more than anything else which is why Colby was eventually let go. There is a very telling monologue from Bob Woodward who paraphrases that President Ford told him he valued loyalty as number one which is why Cheney, Rumsfeld, and George Bush Sr. were his go to guys. There are eerie shadows of the future in 1975 footage of Bush Sr. assuming the job of CIA Director and Cheney and Rumsfeld in the background in certain scenes.
It is not Colby’s fault that most of this documentary is just nice to know, gee-whiz information. Perhaps if Carl Colby chose to only focus on the Vietnam era issues this film would pack more of a punch. The up close interviews with people such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Rumsfeld, and Woodward are very telling, but they concern a man who had such a brief stint in the public eye that it is surprising there was not much to uncover in his private life. Colby was a guy who went to work every day and tried to maintain a steady family life; gentlemen such as this usually do not make for intriguing documentary subjects.
His family life is explored and there is significant time devoted to his wife who provides information on their social lives while in Italy and Vietnam. Carl Colby shows he still has some very deep ‘daddy’ issues claiming his father was very distant, did not have any friends, could be cold, etc… It is hard to say what William Colby would think about this documentary if he were still alive. He was a very private man who kept his personal business at home so he probably would not appreciate its close examination. Furthermore, Carl was just a child during most of his father’s CIA clandestine activities so there is a logical answer to the filmmaker’s frequent exclamation that he never really knew who his father was.