A story in Variety that manages the neat trick of being neither a review nor a news item at least served to alert me to the existence of a new spy documentary. I hadn't previously been aware of The Man Nobody Knew, despite the fact that it's currently rolling out in limited release around the country and about a subject that's interested me since seventh grade. Despite a relatively brief (if tumultuous) tenure as DCI, William Colby is one of the more famous Directors of Central Intelligence in the history of the CIA, largely because he became the Agency's face during the Church Committee Congressional hearings in the mid-Seventies, when many of its darkest secrets came to light. But who was the man himself? That's the subject of his son Carl Colby's new documentary, the full title of which is The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby. Here's distributor First Run Features' official synopsis:
A son's riveting look at a father whose life seemed straight out of a spy thriller, THE MAN NOBODY KNEW: IN SEARCH OF MY FATHER, CIA SPYMASTER WILLIAM COLBY uncovers the secret world of a legendary CIA spymaster. Told by William Colby’s son Carl, the story is at once a probing history of the CIA, a personal memoir of a family living in clandestine shadows, and an inquiry into the hard costs of a nation's most cloaked actions.If that description still doesn't fascinate you, check out this great trailer:
From the beginning of his career as an OSS officer parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe, William Colby rose through the ranks of "The Company," and soon was involved in covert operations in hot spots around the globe. He swayed elections against the Communists in Italy, oversaw the coup against President Diem in Saigon, and ran the controversial Phoenix Program in Vietnam, which sparked today's legacy of counter-insurgency. But after decades of obediently taking on the White House's toughest and dirtiest assignments, and rising to become Director of CIA, Colby defied the President. Braving intense controversy, he opened up to Congress some of the agency's darkest, most tightly held secrets and extra-legal operations.
Now, his son asks a series of powerful and relevant questions about the father who was a ghost-like presence in the family home – and the intelligence officer who became a major force in American history, paving the way for today’s provocative questions about security and secrecy vs. liberty and morality. The film forges a fascinating mix of rare archival footage, never-before-seen photos, and interviews with the "who's who" of American intelligence, including former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and Director of CIA James Schlesinger, as well Pulitzer Prize journalists Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh and Tim Weiner. Through it all, Carl Colby searches for an authentic portrait of the man who remained masked even to those who loved him most.
Despite telling a tale more than a quarter of a century old, this documentary seems especially timely. Senator Bob Kerrey's recollection of his time spent on the CIA's controversial Vietnam anti-insurgency initiative the Phoenix Program particularly resonates today. "By the time I got there in 1969, it felt more like an assassination program," he reveals. That carries a new resonance in the wake of a recent Washington Post story that levels the same claim against the Agency of today.
"In the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks," write journalists Greg Miller and Julie Tate, "the agency has undergone a fundamental transformation. Although the CIA continues to gather intelligence and furnish analysis on a vast array of subjects, its focus and resources are increasingly centered on the cold counterterrorism objective of finding targets to capture or kill.
"The shift has been gradual enough that its magnitude can be difficult to grasp. Drone strikes that once seemed impossibly futuristic are so routine that they rarely attract public attention unless a high-ranking al-Qaeda figure is killed." In that light, Colby's story takes on a new relevance today. While I'm not sure if it's really fair to compare today's Agency's primary ongoing mission against terrorism to Vietnam-era intervention, the CIA is always going to provoke debate, and in order to understand its place in today's world it's crucial to understand its past. Personally, I find the real-life histories of the CIA, MI6, the KGB, the Mossad and other intelligence agencies every bit as engrossing as a great spy novel, and I'm eager to see The Man Nobody Knew.
Further connecting the worlds of spy fact and spy fiction, is it just me or does Gary Oldman's George Smiley bear an uncanny resemblance to Colby? I'm not sure John Le Carré would appreciate the comparison, but I wonder if the makers of the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy examined a number of real-life spy chiefs of that era to create their Smiley's look?
The Man Nobody Knew opened in New York last week and expands to other markets this weekend and over the next few months. (The Los Angeles run begins October 14 at the Nuart.) Visit the film's official website for more details and play dates in your area. Next year, the movie's DVD release will be accompanied by a companion book by Carl Colby of the same name.