The Man Nobody Knew
Directed by Carl Colby
The emotional struggle between fathers and sons can be grueling enough when pop is just a used car salesman or an anonymous number cruncher at some accounting firm. Imagine the stumbling blocks if your father was head of the CIA. That’s the conundrum Carl Colby faced growing up. His father, William Colby, signed up with the agency in its infancy following World War II and eventually rose up the ranks to become Director in 1973. Not surprisingly, the elder Colby played things close to his vest, and the most concrete memory of his father Carl expresses in this documentary regards the nicknames William used for him depending on his mood (“Sport” when he was feeling jolly, “Friend” when he was cross).
Carl Colby does a lot of guesstimating about his father’s emotional perspectives in The Man Nobody Knew, as do many of William Colby’s government contemporaries. They all seem to agree the soft-spoken, bespectacled spymaster generally had the best interests of his country in mind and never gleaned any kind of perverse joy from the dark underbelly of his day-to-day work. After successfully helping quell a Communist uprising in post-war Italy, William Colby was sent to the burgeoning hotbed of Vietnam. Miscommunication between higher-ups doomed Colby almost from the start in that arena; the Phoenix Program, a counterinsurgency initiative against the North Vietnamese whose brutal measures are still debated to this day, failed to bring the CIA’s golden boy the results he desired. William Colby returned to the U.S. in 1971 with the unfortunate public reputation of an international bully and murderer.
Yet William Colby’s greatest professional struggle lay just ahead—along side Watergate, a scandal broke out concerning the CIA’s decades-long practices of illegal wiretapping, surveillance, imprisonment, and assassination plotting. Testifying thirty-some odd times before an indignant Congress about these and other allegations, Colby (who favored CIA reform but refused to declassify anything simply because a panel of grumpy Congressmen were leaning on him) kept his exterior cool despite a clear internal unraveling. An unexpected personal tragedy at approximately this time only compounded matters; after being ousted as CIA head in October of 1975 in favor of swaggering Yaley George H.W. Bush, William Colby faded into the private sector ether and embodied this film’s title more than his family members could realize.
It’s hard to imagine a more in-depth or detailed documentary about one of the CIA’s most ballyhooed spooks, a spook who would ultimately die under circumstances so fittingly mysterious they could have been scripted by Hollywood. Granted, The Man Nobody Knew doesn’t work as any kind of airtight psychological profile, and save the unearthing of a long-lost private diary we’ll probably never fully understand wide swaths of William Colby’s career. Yet the rare glimpse behind the curtain Carl Colby affords us is endlessly engrossing. There’s no question you’ll walk away feeling a greater compassion for this complicated and controversial American figure.
FINAL SCORE: Four angry Congressmen (out of four).