The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby: Film Review

Uniquely personal look at one of the 20th century’s most important spy figures.

Producer/director Carl Colby’s deeply felt exploration of the life and career of his famous father, CIA spy head William Colby, delves into areas both personal and historical.

NEW YORK — The uniquely personal spin to the documentary The ManNobody Knew is made clear by its subtitle: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby. Producer/director Carl Colby’s deeply felt exploration of his father’s life and career is as emotionally, as it is historically, intriguing, even if the filmmaker ultimately admits that he’s never quite able to get to the bottom of his subject’s enigmatic personality.

Colby, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1996 — his body was found eight days after he went on a late night, solo canoeing trip near his home — had a career that spanned many of the most important conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century. In 1942, he joined the Office of Strategic Services, America’s first intelligence agency, and was soon parachuting behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied Europe.

After the war he joined the newly formed CIA, which sent him to Rome in the 1950s to secretly work against the election of Communists. From there he went to Vietnam as CIA Station Chief, where he oversaw the coup of President Diem and later ran the controversial Phoenix Program, whose legacy of counter-insurgency resonates to this day in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 1973, he was appointed CIA director by President Nixon, but two years later he found himself testifying about secret CIA operations at congressional hearings which effectively scuttled his career.

Although the filmmaker never appears on camera, his presence and unique relationship to his subject is palpably felt throughout. He conducts numerous interviews with Colby’s colleagues, including such well-known figures as Donald Rumsfeld, Brent Scowcraft, Zbigneiew Brzezinski and James Schesinge, as well as journalists like Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh and Tim Weiner. The interviewees clearly wrestle with the personal nature of the proceedings, alternately referring to the subject as “Colby” and “your father.” More intimately, he interviews his mother Barbara — his parents got divorced in 1983 — and delves into his father’s guilt over his neglect of his emotionally troubled daughter Catherine, who died in 1973 after suffering from epilepsy and anorexia nervosa.

There’s a fascinating amount of archival material on display, the most stunning of which is a frank audio debate between John and Robert Kennedy and several members of JFK’s cabinet about the plans for the CIA’s coup in South Vietnam.

Throughout it all, Colby, looking every inch the mild-mannered spook in his unassuming suits, fedora hat and horn-rimmed glasses, remains a dignified, upright and ultimately unknowable figure. Perhaps the film’s most heartbreaking moment comes when his son comments, “I’m not sure he ever loved anyone, and I never heard him say anything heartfelt.”

Opens Sept. 23 (First Run Features).

Production company: Act 4 Entertainment.

Director/producer: Carl Colby.

Producers: David Johnson, Grace Guggenheim.

Editor: Jay Freund.

Music: Michael Bacon.

No rating, 104 minutes