Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Man Who Nobody Knew (Wanous)

Documentary reveals spymaster's painful secrets


This family photo was taken in the mid-1950s. William Colby is seated; son Carl, the documentary maker, is second from the right.

This documentary tells the story of William Colby, master spy and one-time director of the CIA who died under mysterious circumstances in 1996. Colby spent his adult life wrapped in the cloak and dagger world of lies, spies and secrecy.

Produced and directed by Colby's son Carl, the film is a slow-moving but fascinating picture of a man who ultimately lived up to the film's title. "The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father" is also an important history lesson about a tumultuous time in 20th Century America, a time when the CIA assassinated foreign leaders, spied on American citizens and plotted government coups around the world.

Spanning his career from beginning to end, the film covers Colby's experiences in World War II, his attempts to help stamp out communism in post-war Italy, his part in the Vietnam War, his appearances before numerous hostile congressional hearings on the CIA, and finally his unusual death.

We hear much about his family life highlighted by numerous family photos. (For a 'superspy,' it's surprising to see so many pictures of him exist.) But in all the snapshots, even the ones of him surrounded by his wife and children, he has a distant look in his eyes, as if he is not really there.

These are not the usual warm and fuzzy family photos -- he seems like a man apart, a man who needs no one, not even his family.

The film features a lot of archival footage and photos, much of which has rarely been seen. And be warned, some of the scenes are quite gruesome.

We watch film of the killing of a suspected Viet Cong enemy, which helped turn U.S. public sentiment against the war. There are scenes of brutal interrogation techniques and several bodies in various stages of death and dismemberment are shown. But the scenes add to the authenticity of the documentary, giving it a gut-wrenching ring of truth.

There are countless interviews and, if it wasn't for the archival film footage and photos, all that talking could have made the film just another dull documentary. But the well-edited collection of audio and film footage, including spellbinding recordings of President Kennedy, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara discussing whether to support a coup against South Vietnam's then-president Diem, keep the film from turning into the usual talking-head documentary. But the film does have a few problems.

Director Colby's narration is stilted and not natural, and adds little to the viewer's knowledge of his father other than to show us that the son obviously didn't know his father any better than anyone else. Toward the end of the movie, Colby's ex-wife recounts how shocked she was when he asked for a divorce after nearly 40 years of marriage. But we learn nothing about his life after that.

Research shows that Colby remarried, started a profitable law practice, became a published author, and was portrayed in a video game called, what else, "Spycraft." But the film doesn't mention any of that. And although director Colby implies that his father may have taken his own life over guilt he felt about his epileptic daughter's death, he doesn't follow up on his suspicions or give us any more information.

Or was foul play involved in the mysterious boating death of Colby? We are left to wonder.

But these flaws aside, "The Man Nobody Knew" gives a history of the CIA and tells the story of a family living with a man they thought they knew but didn't. It's a rare peek into some of America's most secret intelligence operations.    

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