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The Man Nobody Knew – In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby

Release Year:      2011
Studio:      First Run Features
Format:      Colour & B/W; NTSC; Widescreen
Rated:      Not Rated; Some scenes of graphic violence
# of Discs:      1
Running Time:      104 minutes + bonus material
DVD Release Date:      April 17, 2012

Director:      Carl Colby
DVD Features:      SDH subtitles; Carl Colby interviewed by James Reston, Jr.; Extra Scenes: Life of a Spy/ The Mission/ The Threat/ The Sacrifice/ The Future/ Keeping Secrets in an Open Society; Photo Gallery; Colby & CIA timeline
E:Top Picks Rating:      9/10

First Run Features Write-up: 
As powerful and riveting as a John Le Carre thriller, THE MAN NOBODY KNEW uncovers the hidden life of legendary CIA spymaster William Colby. The consummate American soldier-spy, Colby took on the government’s dirtiest assignments without question – until the day he defied presidential orders and revealed to Congress the CIA’s “family jewels” – their darkest, deepest secrets.

Told by his son Carl Coby and featuring a who’s who of the intelligence community as well as top journalists and writers, Colby’s story unmasks the lies, myths, truths, sacrifices and causalities of a spy.

Jon Ted Wynne Review: 
Foul play? Suicide? Natural causes?

When former CIA Director William Colby died on April 27, 1996, after embarking on a solitary canoe ride near his home of Rock Point, Maryland, speculation immediately arose as to the cause of his demise. Even though the coroner cited natural causes (a heart attack or stroke causing him to fall into the water), the veneer of mystery that enshrouded Colby’s life made speculation inevitable.

Who better, then, to try to shed light on the secretive life of the Man Nobody Knew than his own son, Carl Colby?

Truth be told, the film wouldn’t be nearly as effective were it made by filmmakers without a family connection to Colby. Unless one is drawn to themes involving spying and politics, the film might otherwise have limited appeal. But when the subjects interviewed say things like “your father” when talking about Colby senior, which makes it plain they are addressing son Carl, the filmmaker, this serves to create an intimacy, even an urgency as we become drawn into the fascinating story about a man it seems very few people really knew. It is also somewhat endearing. After all, if your dad was a controversial public figure, wouldn’t you want to get the facts straight?

“I want to better know my father” is clearly the impetus behind this film. Whether it’s to vindicate him for some of his professional choices or to simply find out who he was, there is a simple, straightforward honesty about Carl Colby’s motivation which translates into his film making and which is always involving and, at times, quite moving.

Personal politics will temper audience reaction to William Colby’s life and career. One thing is obvious; here was a man who loved the challenges inherent in his job, a man who was not afraid to get his hands dirty. By the Vietnam era, particularly during implementation of directives such as Operation Phoenix, Colby’s hands became very dirty indeed. Such ill-fated landmarks of the 20th-Century as the war in Vietnam continue to provoke strong emotions and most people today would agree the conflict should never have happened, but anyone who was there and trying to make sense out of it had to make difficult decisions. There were reasons for the war and at the time they were compelling.

The political situation in Vietnam was not unlike events in Korea a decade earlier, with the country split between the Communist north and the Republican south. The Korean war arguably prevented World War III. Might the situation in Vietnam, left unchecked, have eventually led to the same outcome? We’ll never know and the point is moot, but in Colby’s case, it is clear he acted out of a strong sense of selective morality and truly believed in both the actions he was taking and the means by which he attempted to accomplish his goals.

Apparently a devout Catholic, Colby senior must be judged, if he is judged at all, by the values his faith system represents, without the cynicism that often accompanies a person’s profession of spiritual influence. But in light of the atrocities that peppered Operation Phoenix, which involved the wholesale torture and killing of suspected Viet Cong, often by the most gruesome means imaginable, this is thorny territory indeed. After all, just how much terror is justified for the greater good? Complex, difficult and as extreme as these questions may be, Colby the filmmaker does not shy away from showing them, or his father’s role in instigating them.

Politics and morality aside – and the film gives us enough information to understand the various political climates that contextualize Colby’s work and decision-making – the reason THE MAN NOBODY KNEW is so effective is that it is ultimately about what the secondary title of the film says it is: “In search of my father CIA Spymaster William Colby”. By making a film about his dad and his desire to want to know him better, Carl Colby masterfully presents polarizing subject matter in such a way that the viewer is compelled to accompany him on his journey. And that is superior storytelling by any definition.

On a side note, viewers should know that there is some very graphic footage from the Vietnam sequences, some of it very hard to watch. And, there is some very interesting bonus material, including additional interviews and Carl Colby himself being interviewed. First Run Features have once again picked a real winner.