Film Review: The Man Nobody Knew

The Man Nobody Knew is a conventionally made, 104 minute-long documentary about former Central Intelligence Agency Director William Colby.  There is the usual use of archival footage plus a collection of talking heads, which includes a who’s who of the usual scumbags from government, military and top secret circles.  However, while its technique is straightforward, what makes this doc – subtitled In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby – different is the fact that it’s directed by the subject’s son, Carl Colby.  In this sense, The Man Nobody Knew is like Tell Them Who You Are, Mark Wexler’s 2004 documentary exploration of his dad, cinematographer Haskell Wexler – albeit from the opposite side of the political aisle.

History buffs and espionage aficionados will probably be interested in much of the terrain The Man Nobody Knew covers, starting with Colby’s derring-do in the fabled OSS, the World War II precursor of the CIA.  Following WWII Colby was recruited by the Agency, and he was posted at Rome along with his family, under the cover of being a U.S. embassy staffer.  There, his wife and children enjoyed a privileged existence as Colby helped orchestrate an unofficial version of the Marshall Plan, subverting Italian democracy with massive infusions of dollars to corrupt voting to ensure that the popular Communist Party didn’t win elections and join a coalition government.  (Here the doc treads on similar ground as the 2006 feature Fade to Black, with Danny Huston playing a beleaguered Orson Welles acting in a costume pic in Huston’s birthplace, postwar Rome, and it’s intriguing to see a nonfiction treatment of the same subject matter.)

After sabotaging Italy’s elections, in the late 1950s this not so quiet American was reassigned to wreak similar havoc in Vietnam, where – as in Italy – the U.S. made sure the masses could not elect the very popular Ho Chi Minh president.  In Saigon Colby and his well-heeled kin hobnobbed with South Vietnamese President Ngo Din Diem and other U.S. puppets, such as his despicable sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, who is seen in a news clip haughtily dismissing a Buddhist Monk’s self immolation as “barbecuing.”  After Colby left Indochina to become the CIA’s Chief of its Far East Division, Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were liquidated in a U.S.-backed coup – just a few weeks before President Kennedy himself succumbed to the Cold War era violence that would also claim his brother Bobby five years later.

When America was waist deep in the big muddy and the big fool said to push on, Colby was re-posted to Vietnam, where he ran a pacification program, including the extremely controversial Phoenix Program, which resulted in the killing of up to 40,994 Viet Cong, according to the book The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence by Victor Marchetti and John Marks.  It’s interesting to revisit this counterinsurgency strategy as President Shaft – uh, I mean Obama – once again deploys targeted assassination as an arm of U.S. foreign policy.  In any case, the extreme prejudice of Colby’s desperate measures were all for naught, as Vietnam was liberated of scourges like Colby in 1975.

Meanwhile, the sleazeball-in-chief – uh, I mean Richard Milhous Nixon – appointed Colby Director of Central Intelligence in 1973.  But like King Rat Nixon himself, as DCI Colby became embroiled in scandals that made the Watergate break-in look like a frat house prank in comparison.  The Catholic Colby’s sins and covert actions, and those of his Agency, caught up to him by 1974, as the Church Committee launched a nine month-long investigation of dirty tricks, dirtier tricks and dirtiest tricks (can you say “Allende”?) by the CIA, which LBJ had pithily summed up as “Murder, Inc.”  Colby dutifully appeared before Congress 32 times in one year, and the doc features choice footage of Congressmembers Ron Dellums and Bella Abzug grilling the spymaster on the hot seat, as the people’s elected Representatives confronted America’s shadowy secret government.

Suspected mass murderer William Colby got his comeuppance when President Gerald Ford rewarded him for his decades of loyal service by summarily firing him in October 1975.  Twenty-one years later, Colby rather appropriately died as he had lived: Mysteriously.  His filmmaker/ son suspects his dad’s death was somehow self-inflicted.  Who knows?

Throughout the rest of the doc director Carl Colby tries to fathom his enigmatic father and come to terms with the parent who led a cloak and dagger life that inextricably cut him off from his own family.  Along the way, his rogues’ gallery of interviewees include Zbigniew Brezinski (the foreign policy whiz who helped give us Osama and Al Qaeda), ex-CIA Director James Schlesinger, Iran-Contra co-conspirator Lt. Col. Robert “Bud” McFarlane, former Ford NSA adviser and Bush toady Brent Scowcroft, and war criminal Donald Rumsfeld, who had been Ford’s chief of staff (infections).

Also interviewed are investigative reporters Seymour Hersh and Bob Woodward, and the helmer’s mother, Barbara Colby, a faithful wife whom William dumped after 38 years of marriage.  She, like Carl, try to make sense of it all; who really was this bowtied 007?  The doc appears to make an attempt to exculpate and justify Colby’s decades of wreaking mayhem around the globe, as nonfiction threatens to turn into fiction.  But it’s more delusional than those humans unwittingly subjected to psychotropic drugs by the CIA were to fantasize that Colby, the grand subverter of democracy from Europe to Asia, was an honorable man simply serving his country.  It’s no secret that this most private of public servants was, in reality, an agent of imperialism whose claws were as blood drenched as his masters’.

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