Film Review: The Man Nobody Knew

Fascinating, deeply researched documentary about the long career of elusive CIA spymaster William Colby by his son provides more lessons about how access counts in both espionage and filmmaking.

Anybody remotely interested in the spy game will have a grand time with Carl Colby’s portrait of his late father, former CIA director William Colby, and his many years of service in covert intelligence work in the OSS and CIA. The filmmaker, who has previously focused on many other renowned subjects (Willem de Kooning, Franco Zeffirelli, et al.), corrals as talking heads such important figures as Donald Rumsfeld, James Schlesinger, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Senator Bob Kerrey, among scores of forthcoming witnesses to Colby’s life.

With such a fascinating if cryptic life as its subject, The Man Nobody Knew is sure to find sizeable audiences, although many may want to wait for the DVD, which will feature additional material. The film ingeniously integrates archival footage of the Colby years, including those spent in Rome and, more importantly, in Vietnam and on the Senate floor for the historic grillings into the methods of the CIA. Throughout, Carl Colby interweaves an intimate interview with his mother Barbara Colby, who shared William’s deep Roman Catholic beliefs but not his secret life. Intelligent, articulate and still soul-searching, she is the movie’s heartbeat. Carl Colby amplified the accounts of these talking heads with many other interviews that served his basic research and are due on the DVD.

The Man Nobody Knew reveals details and footage of Colby beginning with his career in World War II as an OSS officer who parachuted into Norway for sabotage work to weaken the Nazi occupiers. Soon after, he began his rise in “the Company,” where his specialty was working hot spots around the globe that seemed threatened by Communism. This globe-trotting was done largely with family in tow, so that home movies abounded (and the filmmaker makes good use of this trove).

In Rome after the war, Colby, with his cover as a diplomat, worked closely with the Vatican to weaken the growing Communist Party that threatened to take over the country. Funneling money to the right people and parties helped do the trick in swaying elections.

A long term of duty in Vietnam had Colby overseeing the coup against President Diem and his brother in Saigon. Here, Colby ran the controversial Phoenix Program, where the strategy of counterinsurgency was born.

The doc spends considerable time with Colby’s Vietnam period, but such attention doesn’t quite lift the fog of that war (except for the reminder that the fight there really was a civil war that probably should have been left to the locals).

Colby rose to become director of the CIA, but, offering lessons of loyalty within the federal government, the film chronicles how, almost rebelliously, he opened up to Congress and its insistent Senate committees to reveal much of the Agency’s funny business (extra-legal operations, rigorously kept secrets, etc.) that had never been scrutinized.

The Man Nobody Knew, also helped by commentary from award-winning journalists like Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh and Tim Weiner, explodes with information that reveals the workings (actually, the subtleties) of government. And Carl Colby’s occasional voice-overs are helpful in illuminating both the political and personal intricacies of a father driven for most of his life by unwavering moral and religious beliefs.

While William Colby’s professional life of service in the clandestine world makes for a helluva story, The Man Nobody Knew also delivers a helluva ending, as the son serves up some startling twists. The ending pays off, but doesn’t quite resolve the enigma of so complex a subject as his father. The fog of father remains as thick as the fog of war.