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

A Spy Still Out In The Cold

Just in the last decade, the Central Intelligence Agency has long been a cinematic goldmine from everything to serious period pieces (The Good Shepherd, 2006), mistaken identity ineptitude (Company Man, 2000) and real life headline scandal (Fair Game, 2010). Documentary filmmaker Carl Colby exploits family skeletons with his latest effort, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search Of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, which details the life of his father, who was the director of the CIA during the Nixon administration. While not terribly surprising in its revelations, the film does manage to illicit empathy as an intimate portrait of a cold, distant father, struggling to reconcile not only his duplicitous life between work and family but also between work and politics.

Beginning with his father’s mysterious death in 1996 (ruled an accidental drowning), we get the sense that Colby’s documentary would not have been possible if his father were still alive. While there’s nearly an impenetrable sense of speculation concerning William Colby as a man, we’re treated to his ex-wife Barbara and various co-workers’ reminisces of him while a parade of photographs progress across the screen. As the film details Colby’s involvement with the CIA through the viewpoint of his Barbara, we discover that not even she was sure of the what, how, and when this happened.

The CIA’s basic rule of knowledge of a “need to know” basis was supposedly never violated in the Colby household. Stationed in Sweden, Italy, and Vietnam, touting Barbara and five children along, the documentary becomes a history lesson in Cold War politics, reaching multiple crescendos with the Kennedy assassinations, the Vietnam conflict, and the demise of Colby’s career after Nixon’s resignation. After his own resignation, Colby would eventually ask Barbara for a divorce in 1983, remarry, write two books and open a law firm. His son chooses not to visit the timeline of his father’s life after 1983.

The Man Nobody Knew perhaps best reflects the cultural psyche of propaganda during a period in history incredibly romanticized in America. His mother Barbara reminisces how everyone, just everyone wanted to go fight during WWII (at the end of which she married William Colby) because the nation had a sense that their way of life was under attack. As a portrait of a heteronormative nuclear familial unit with a spy centered as head of the household, the documentary has all the makings of a juicy television series, but instead becomes more of a history lesson than the portrait of one man’s struggle to do the right thing.

The film’s second half is the strongest, detailing Colby’s decision to tell the truth to Congress when called to testify over 30 different times on past abuses (including illegal wiretapping) by the CIA. President Ford, seemingly distrustful of Colby, appointed George Bush, Sr. as its director after Colby’s resignation (Ford considered Bush a loyalist). Snippets of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (who appears in the film to be interviewed as well—the glory of retirement) are intriguing yet distracting, and we’re left with a topical of impression of William Colby. It makes perfect sense that a Catholic heterosexual would struggle to do the right thing as Director of the CIA during such crucial periods in America’s history, and you’d expect his family life to be tempered or completely fabricated. Choosing not to detail anything about his father’s life after the CIA only solidifies that the focus of this film is really the CIA and not William Colby.

While we can’t help but feel an appreciation for Barbara Colby, one cannot help but be struck by the nonchalant conclusion of the film when director Colby narrates that his father wished to have his ashes scattered. Instead, it was determined that he would be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and more of as an excuse for the family to mourn together for a father that had been distant and absent. Even in death, William Colby was confined to a box to satisfy the needs of others. How surprised can we be that nobody knew him very well?

Rating 3 stars

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Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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