Nov 21, 2011

Movie Review: The Man Nobody Knew (2011)

Movie Review: The Man Nobody Knew (2011)

In The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, William Colby’s son, filmmaker Carl Colby, seeks to better know his own father—and, in the process, share the senior Colby’s fascinating story with the world. And William Colby’s story is fascinating. It was on his watch as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) in the mid-Seventies that the ultra-secretive CIA opened up many of its most secret files to the public and adopted a new policy of (relative) transparency during the Senate’s Church Committee hearings. Not only did that lead to a new era of increased Congressional oversight for the Agency, but it also led directly to the publication of a slew of new books on a subject formerly difficult to glean much information on. Therefore, as someone who became interested in the CIA a little over a decade after the Church Committee (or United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, to use its lengthy official moniker), I came across William Colby’s name quite a lot in the library books I checked out in middle school. In fact, whenever you opened to the ten or fifteen pages of black and white photographs in the middle of any paperback about the CIA, there was a picture of Senator Frank Church holding up an electric CIA poison dart pistol that he asked Colby to identify and explain. As we can now ascertain via declassified information in books like Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton’s Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda, it wasn’t the sexiest of the CIA’s Cold War spy gadgets, but it was the one there was a picture of on the public record, and as such bound to turn up in any attempt to sensationalize the business of spying. In addition to playing a key role in many of the non-fiction books about the Agency published in the late Seventies and Eighties, Colby himself penned or introduced a few of them—and even lent his name to a computer game. (I never got the game, although I desperately wanted it.)

Unlike some CIA directors, William Colby did not come in from the outside. Like many of the Agency’s earlier bosses, he spent his whole career in intelligence and rose through the ranks to his ultimate position. Carl Colby combines his family’s rare home movies and photos with an impressive array of historical footage and audio from sources like Corbis and various Presidential libraries to ensure that his documentary never dwells for too long on the countless (and impressive) talking heads (including the likes of former agents, family members, politicians, Bob Woodward, James Schlesinger, Seymour Hersh and even Donald Rumsfeld) who tell its story. That story begins back in WWII when William Colby volunteers for hazardous duty behind enemy lines with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime predecessor to the CIA. This section includes some interesting and—now buffered by the passing of a number of decades—humorous newsreel footage of OSS agents in rigorous training. The humor comes from the fact that, to protect their identities at the time, they all wear Lone Ranger masks as they work out, fire guns and practice hand-to-hand combat.

Around this time, Colby also marries his wife, Barbara (Carl’s mom), who serves as one of the story’s main narrators. Thus the two storylines are established of Colby’s private and professional lives. While the family would move with Colby when he was stationed in Rome and later Saigon, these two lives remain strictly separate. This is part of the reason that the spymaster’s son is only now managing to assemble a full portrait of his father. While growing up in far-flung locales, he knew as little about his dad’s job as anyone else. (He does have recollections of going on family picnics in Italy, from which his father would slip away to go meet someone and exchange brown envelopes or inconspicuous bags.) Colby’s wife reveals that she only found out he was working in Intelligence again (after a brief post-war career in the private sector) when a neighbor told her that her husband got out of his carpool each morning and hopped a bus to Langley!

We learn about Colby’s successful mission to stifle the spread of Communism in Italy, and hear insightful (if overlong) accounts of the beginnings of America’s involvement in Vietnam. This section includes some revelatory audiotapes of President Kennedy’s cabinet debating covert action in the Far East. We also learn, from veterans who were part of it, about the Colby-spearheaded Phoenix Program, a controversial Agency initiative (and forerunner of today’s hunter-killer drone operations) that some critics labeled an assassination program. At the same time, Colby’s devout Catholicism is explored. This proves to be an interesting topic, and some contributors posit that it may have been Catholic guilt that drove him to “confess” many of the Agency’s darkest secrets to the Church Committee years later.

The most interesting section of the documentary comes, not surprisingly, during those years. Following the dispiriting duration of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the American people had lost faith in their government and become sick of covert action. A Nixon appointee, Colby displeased his boss when he refused to let the Agency take the blame for Watergate, which was a White House operation. Following Nixon’s resignation, the public pushed for more and more transparency from the CIA, and despite Senator Church’s outraged performance at his committee’s hearings, Colby gave them more answers than any other DCI likely would have—and more than President Ford would have liked. (He drew the line, however, at the Agency’s notorious “family jewels”—files so explosive he believed their exposure could ruin the CIA.) At every turn, Colby did what he truly believe was best for the Agency.

Personally, I’ve never been sure why Church and the American people were so mortified and surprised at the revelations that the CIA had engaged in illegal covert actions and attempted assassinations. Yes, the Agency has a spotty record (particularly in the 1950s) and many of their attempts to shape the political futures of other nations (Iran, Chile) directly created the mess the world's in today, but I’m not talking about the morality of their actions. I’m talking about the mere fact that they were happening. Today, we’d be pretty shocked if the CIA weren't trying to assassinate the likes of Bin Laden and his ilk! (And no one complained when their intelligence led to the JSOC operation that killed the Al Qaeda leader.) It’s easy to say it was a different time and people were more naïve, except that they really shouldn't have been! After all, as readers of this blog are well aware, the 1960s were chock-full of depictions of covert action in popular culture. Of course people knew that James Bond and Mission: Impossible were total fiction, but didn’t they guess that there was some kernel of truth at their heart? If Ian Fleming could dream up a license to kill and screenwriters could dream up exotic gadgets, and Bruce Gellar could dream up complicated plots to overthrow unfriendly governments, didn’t people guess that the real spooks could dream up similar things? I feel like the only shock registered by a senator at the existence of a secret dart gun should have been, “Why is it so big? James Bond’s fit into a cigarette!” instead of incredulity at its very existence. Senator Church’s reaction reminds me of Louis being “shocked… shocked!” to discover that gambling is going on in Rick’s establishment in Casablanca, right before he’s given his winnings.

But that brings us back to Vietnam and Watergate. The mid-Seventies were a crucial junction for spies not only in real life, but in popular culture. The Watergate scandal broke in March of 1973. That’s also the year and even month that the last remaining Sixties spy show, Mission: Impossible, went off the air—and it's no coincidence. Although certain spy elements would turn up in fantasy shows later in the decade (like The Six Million Dollar Man's OSI), there wouldn’t be another hit spy show on American TV screens for the duration of the Seventies. (For the next hit, we have to look all the way to Scarecrow and Mrs. King in the Eighties, at a time when Reagan heated up the rhetoric of the Cold War once more.) And in the Cineplex, the steady stream of spy movies that rolled out in the Sixties ground to a halt. Those that did still trickle out were decidedly different in tone from those of the decade prior, too. Either they hitched their wagons to other, more popular genres (witness the Roger Moore James Bond films emulating the success of kung-fu movies or Star Wars), or they took a much more cynical view of the profession of spying, as in Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite or Michael Winner’s Scorpio. The American public lost its appetite for spy shows and escapist spy films at the same time it became disgusted with the CIA, the war, the Nixon Administration and government in general. That disgust with the CIA manifested itself in the Church Committee hearings in 1975. All this may seem like a lengthy tangent in a review of a film that doesn’t itself delve into popular culture, but it’s illustrative of why The Man Nobody Knew should be of interest to all spy fans, and not just history buffs. It’s important to understand how actual events shape the popular genres of entertainment we consume.

After the Church Committee hearings, Colby was eventually dismissed from his post. In interview footage in the film, he tells a reporter that the important thing is that his successor not be a partisan political figure, but someone whose first concern is always the good of the Agency. From this quote, the film cuts to a shot of George H. W. Bush being sworn into the post.

Surprisingly, Carl Colby basically wraps things up after his father’s departure from the CIA. While a traditional documentary on Colby might well end there, it seems like an abrupt place to leave the story for a personal documentary like this one, which jumps ahead to the former DCI’s death under mysterious circumstances decades later. It seems as if the filmmaker hasn’t yet found the catharsis he was seeking when he set out to explore his father’s life, and he backs away just as he’s getting close. He allows his mother to deliver a shocking bombshell about the family, but then veers away, seemingly unwilling to dig too deeply into the motivations behind this surprising development. The upshot is that though we learn a lot about the facts of William Colby’s life, and get a clear sense of his place in the history of the 20th century, we never do get to know The Man Nobody Knew. This, of course, is the point that the younger Colby is making, but it seems as if he could have gotten to know his distant father a bit more if he’d been willing to dig a little deeper. Of course, it’s very easy to understand why perhaps he wouldn’t want to, but the result is a documentary that falls just short in the personal story it’s telling even as it succeeds in telling the professional story. Of course, it’s that professional side of Colby’s life that spy enthusiasts will be eager to learn about, and it’s easy to recommend this film for that reason. It offers an eye-opening look at a controversial figure at the very center of the CIA’s most tumultuous period, and as such will enhance your appreciation and understanding of pop cultural spies as well as real ones.

The Man Nobody Knew continues to roll out in a platform release across the country through mid-December. Check the film's website to learn when it will play in your area.

1 comment:

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