Cold Warrior. Director of Central Intelligence. Father. William Colby led a varied life. Some of it was very secretive, working behind the scenes to influence the world in places like Italy and Vietnam. Some of it became public, as when he testified before Congress about the CIAs secrets. Some of it was lived out with his family—a family that seems like most American families of the time, except for the father’s occupation. The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby is an attempt by his son Carl to come to terms with his father.
Much of the film is a history lesson built around Colby’s life. During World War II he began working with the OSS, parachuting behind enemy lines to blow up bridges and lead resistance forces. After the war he finished school and went to work for the newly formed CIA, working in Europe with operatives behind the Iron Curtain, leading a cover campaign to prevent Communists victories in Italian elections, working in Vietnam to win the “hearts and minds” in counter-insurgency programs, which at times included targeted assassinations. Later when Colby was head of the CIA the whole issue of domestic spying became an issue. When Colby appeared before Congress, he felt the need to be honest, even if there were those who found such honesty a betrayal.
This history has observations by some impressive commentators, such as former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert McFarlane, and Brent Scowcroft; former FBI and CIA Director William Webster; journalists Bob Woodward, Daniel Schorr, and Seymour Hersh; and Oleg Kalugin, former head of the KGB Foreign Intelligence Directorate. (There will be even more big names included in the DVD release.)
But there is also a more personal side with comments by Carl and interviews with his mother about what life was like during those years. It is here that we hear things that lead us to think that the younger Colby is looking at his father with at least a bit of ambivalence. That is not to say that there is animosity being worked out here, rather a seeking to better understand.
Early in the film Carl says, “My father did a lot of things, but he was very good at making war.” This is said as neither bragging nor shame. It is a provocative statement, but also one that carries a great deal of moral quandary. Later in the film Carl says, “People would turn to me and say, ‘your father was a murderer.’ My immediate reaction used to be, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And then I’d find myself thinking ‘Was he? Who was he really?’”
A key idea that surfaces from time to time in the film is the concept of a moral compass. Barbara Colby, William’s wife, maintains that he did indeed have a moral compass. It is not hard to make a case for the morality of acting in the Cold War or for counter-insurgency during a war like Vietnam. The morality of it is certainly debatable, but cases can be made.
Where I think Colby’s moral compass is most clearly seen is in his role testifying before Congress. Before he took office, various secret programs were documented and hidden away. These were often referred to as the “Family Jewels.” Some of these programs were both illegal and embarrassing. Should the CIA be above the law? Should they only answer to the Executive Branch or should Congress be able to find out what the CIA is doing? It is important to note that Colby’s tenure as CIA chief occurred at a time when Congress was retaking some of the power that had been assumed by the Presidency over the years. Colby was the one who was between a rock and a hard place and felt it incumbent upon him to be honest with the Congress. It is likened in the film to the role of confession in the church.
Making a personal film like this can easily fall prey to the desire of a filmmaker to defend the subject or to release all the pent up anger of the years. Carl Colby doesn’t err in either of those areas. However, for being billed as a son’s search for his father, this film doesn’t give us quite enough of the son and his understandings and perceptions of his father during the times we are shown. There is a bit too much distance from the relationship between father and son. Such additional insight could have greatly enhanced the film.