'Being in a world of concealment and deception puts a person in a difficult space, psychologically, morally and socially," notes a Jesuit priest - who also happens to be a counselor to spies - in The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby.
Colby was a bespectacled Ivy Leaguer who led Resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Norway, worked to keep the Communist Party from taking over postwar Italy, and then headed counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam, beginning just after the French had fled. He was named director of the CIA by President Richard Nixon and served into the Ford administration, before everything fell apart. It's tempting to think of him as the real-life, Yankee version of George Smiley. (Indeed, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Man Nobody Knew would make a great double bill.)
The Man Nobody Knew offers both a fascinating look at the nuts and bolts of old-school espionage and a poignant memoir from a son still trying to make sense of who his father was, and what he did. Colby died in 1996, in what officially was ruled a canoeing accident. His body was discovered eight days after he disappeared.
Carl Colby, an accomplished documentary filmmaker, lines up a daunting array of interview subjects, including his mother, Colby's stalwart first wife, Barbara; former Secretaries of Defense James Schlesinger and Donald Rumsfeld; former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey, reporters Bob Woodward and Tim Weiner; former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and men and women who worked closely with Colby at "The Company" and in the field.
The Man Nobody Knew (with a fine musical score by Michael Bacon) also boasts sobering eve-of-crisis White House audiotapes, in which President John Kennedy and his brother Robert can be heard conferring with top advisers about the consequences of a U.S.-backed coup in Diem-era Vietnam - a coup Colby opposed.
At once a deeply personal film and an important historical document, The Man Nobody Knew leaves us with an incomplete portrait of a man. Did Colby have a moral core? Did he know what was truth, and what was a lie? Did he sanction assassination plots? Did he love his family? Was he even capable of love?
In the end, Colby the filmmaker is still asking these questions, but his search for the answers leads us on an illuminating journey.