The Man Nobody Knew – 2 stars


This documentary is directed by Carl Colby, the son of the subject, former CIA Director William Colby. In all likelihood, therein lies the problem. Carl is torn as to which themes to stress, much as he is torn by the legacy of his father.  He settles on three.  First is a straight up documentary about a clandestine Cold Warrior who saved Italy from Communism and was critical to the Phoenix Program, eventually rising to the directorship of the CIA, where he was battered by Congress’s withering post-Watergate assault on the Agency.  Footage from Italy, Vietnam, and congressional hearings is provided, along with interviews of numerous members of the American power structure at the time, including Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Kerry, Bud McFarlane.  Bob Woodward and many others. This part is occasionally interesting, but since critical emphasis is placed elsewhere, the historical report lacks any real depth.

Carl Colby also presents a portrait of his family, with the strict and moralistic William Colby at the head, his wife Barbara at his side, as they were stationed from post to post. The interviews with Barbara Colby are affecting as she explains how her husband worked and the impact of Catholicism on his personality, and there are some charming vignettes, but we don’t get much of a sense as to how Colby interacted with anyone in the family.  Occasionally, Carl’s voiceover expresses disappointment about his father’s secretive nature, but there are no real insights.  Carl drops hints of various issues (an epileptic and anorexic sister, a late in life divorce), but they are only given the most cursory treatment (we never learn that, in fact, the sister died in 1973).  For a man “nobody knew,” secrets are to be expected, but we should get better from a son. 

Carl offers a third, more personal theme – the effect of having such a mysterious and enigmatic father. This aspect of the film is the weakest and most awkward. Very abruptly at the end, we’re informed that in 1996, Colby took a canoe from his Southern Maryland home after dinner and was found days later, dead.  The coroner concluded that Colby drowned after a stroke or heart attack. Carl does not provide an alternative theory though he strongly suggests the miserable, guilty William Colby did himself in, after some wine and clams(?)  Carl has been quoted as saying, “Call it whatever you like. I think he’d had enough of this life.”

Carl tells us – as he has in some form or fashion throughout the documentary – that Daddy wasn’t there for him, intoning, “I’m not sure he ever loved anyone and I’m not sure I ever heard him say anything heartfelt.”   Given the limited presentation, and in particular the absence of remembrances from William Colby’s other 3 children and his second wife, Carl’s view strikes me as unique.  Indeed, Carl told The Washington Post “I preferred the old dad, not the new . . . The old dad taught me how to sacrifice. The new dad . . . was just an ordinary guy with ordinary desires.”  That says a lot.  It is as if Carl has settled on his father as a dark, tortured soul and the coda to his life – a love affair with another woman that lasted 13 years that was by all accounts happy – didn’t fit his meme, so he ignored it.

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