Probing mystery of a parent's life
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct. 28, 2011
It's rather telling that the credits for filmmaker Carl Colby's fascinating, if frustrating, documentary about his late father, veteran spy and former CIA director William Colby, lists the people who appear in the film as "witnesses." There's a strong air of a criminal trial to the film, which spends a substantial chunk of its time - perhaps even a little too much time - on the Vietnam era, that chapter of Colby's life and career about which the morality of his actions has been most hotly debated.
It is, paradoxically, a measure of the younger Colby's evenhandedness that you may come out the other side of the movie still undecided about whether his father's management of the so called Phoenix Program of the late 1960s and early 1970s was, as some critics have claimed, a program of sanctioned assassination. But it also seems a measure of the filmmaker's wishy-washiness. Carl Colby is neither prosecutor nor defense attorney, nor does he seem to want to be.
It is no accident that the film is called "The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby." To some degree, its subject remains tantalizingly unknowable, even after all the witnesses have taken the stand.
The movie opens with a mystery of another sort: William Colby's 1996 disappearance and initially suspicious death while boating near his home in Southern Maryland. After hinting at foul play or suicide, the film backtracks to the beginning of William Colby's career, which it then follows, meticulously, through a World War II stint in the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) and later CIA postings around the world, culminating in Colby's directorship of the agency from 1973 to 1976.
Along the way, it is a standard talking-head parade, made slightly weirder, if more personal, by the fact that many of its interviewees - who include Carl Colby's mother, Barbara, and journalist Bob Woodward - refer to the film's subject as "your father." The filmmaker, who interrupts the timeline with sporadic narration, can't help but reveal a tiny bit of himself, even as he attempts to stick to profiling his infamous father. His own doubts about whether his old man really was a war criminal give the film an unexpected bite.
In the end, though, the jury is still out.
"He did what needed to be done," says the filmmaker's mother, mysteriously and with a hint of resignation. It's less than a rousing endorsement. More intriguing is the discovery that William Colby, a staunch Roman Catholic, divorced Barbara in 1984, in a turn of events that seems to have taken even his ex-wife by surprise. She calls him, in an understatement, "complicated" and admits to knowing him less well than she thought. For his part, Carl Colby says he never heard his father say anything heartfelt; he isn't sure that his father ever loved anyone.
In some ways, "The Man Nobody Knew" is a quintessential Washington spook story, told by a globe-trotting CIA brat who thought, for the longest time, that his father worked for the State Department. Carl Colby's mother was also kept in the dark. Although William Colby's first government job was with the National Labor Relations Board, he never told his wife when he started working for the CIA.
In spycraft, constant deception comes with the territory. The film suggests that it changes you psychologically, morally and emotionally. Or else you were that way to begin with. A subplot of the film is the death of Carl Colby's sister, Catherine, of epilepsy and anorexia in 1973. William Colby, Carl argues, may have felt guilty about not having been available or supportive enough when she was ill. As somewhat tendentious evidence, the filmmaker notes that, when his father's body was found, he was carrying his daughter's picture.
"The Man Nobody Knew" is riddled with uncertainty. But Carl Colby is sure of one thing. Although William Colby's death was ruled an accident, the filmmaker says he knows better. His father, he says simply - if enigmatically - had "had enough of this life."