Tuesday, October 25, 2011

William Colby, The Man Nobody Knew

I saw The Man Nobody Knew last night at the Siskel Theatre.  The film is a superb documentary on William Colby by his son Carl.  While parachute training for World War II Colby signs up for more hazardous duty and thereby launches his career as a spy and spy master.  Colby goes from operating behind the lines in Norway, to working towards the victory of the Christian Democrats in Italy, to South Vietnam, concluding with being the CIA Director during the last days of the Nixon administration and into the Ford administration.

We are taken through Colby’s life both professionally and personally and learn that there isn’t much of a distinction between the two.  His wife tells of entertaining a couple in Italy and then when they run into them the next night being told by her husband “we don’t know them.”  A family picnic becomes an occasion for a drop.  Well says his son, he didn’t lie; we did go for a picnic.

The key event in Colby’s career is South Vietnam.  It is there that he develops a counter insurgency strategy which was abandoned in favor of a military approach but is later used by the U.S. in Iraq.  Particularly interesting to me was the film’s coverage of the coup against the Diem administration including an embarrassingly bad discussion of the issue in the Kennedy White House with Colby contributing a wonderful neutral non-neutral assessment.  Going through the relative strength of the forces aligned for and against the coup he tells the group that they are even enough “for a good fight.”

Colby finds himself as the Director of Central Intelligence at the conclusion of the war in Vietnam and in the aftermath of Watergate.  It is William Colby that testifies in front of the congressional Church Committee in the most riveting part of the film.  The deeply catholic Colby, perhaps atoning for his own sins, ends up sharing with Congress and the wider public the sins of his agency.  The pressure on the man here is palpable; running a large agency, facing a hostile Congress (seemingly on a daily basis) and press, and without support from the White House who believed he was out of control and sharing way too much.

At the end of The Man Nobody Knew you feel as though you still don’t know the man at all.  Ordinarily that would be an indictment of the film but in this case it only speaks to how thoroughly enigmatic its subject.   Throughout William Colby is tough to get any kind of handle on but then the really big surprises come out and you’re left with only the conclusion that the title is well chosen. 

Beyond that the film is incredibly rich in stories, tidbits, and observations.  It is rare to see a documentary with a strong story line where you come away with the impression that “the plot” is wholly secondary.  Colby’s insights into spying, glimpses into how policy is made at the highest level including a classic exchange between Times Abe Rosenthal and Gerald Ford, and the seemingly endless issues that arise from Colby’s career make for an excellent film and the relief that we weren’t William Colby’s son.

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