A growing shelf of documentaries find filmmakers on a quest to understand their parents’ secrets, and by extension, themselves, but few of those quests are as directly about that theme as “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby.” What secrets did Carl Colby’s father keep? Everybody’s. In a way, it’s biography as autobiography: how was I shaped by the man who shaped key episodes of American clandestine activities for decades? Talking to more than eighty interview subjects, Colby fils tries to understand how his father kept his composure from the time of the OSS, predecessor service to the CIA, through the Vietnam War, to his tenure as chief from 1973 to 1976. (His successor, after secrets were disclosed and he testified before Congressional hearings, was George H. W. Bush.) It’s an ambitious task the film has set out to accomplish: to refract the moral dilemmas of twentieth-century United States through one man’s quiet doings, and with an intoxicating weave of detail, largely succeeds. It’s not only the testimony by former Company men, sleek-groomed elders, but a vibrant taste in archival footage. Colby’s not a fictional character, like John le Carre’s taciturn Smiley in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” but his look does embody the mild, slightly patrician look of a bureaucrat that cloaks many an internal conflict. The younger Colby coolly says, “I’m not sure he ever loved anyone, and I never heard him say anything heartfelt.” Even acknowledging that, Colby never gets to the heart of Colby, unknowable even beyond the grave. With Zbigniew Brzezinski, Seymour Hersh, Bob Kerrey, Walter Pincus, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Daniel Schorr, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, USAF, Judge Laurence Silberman, Evan Thomas, Judge William Webster, Bob Woodward. 104m. (Ray Pride)
“The Man Nobody Knew: In Search Of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby” plays Friday-Saturday, Monday and Wednesday at Siskel. Carl Colby will appear at the Friday and Saturday screenings.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.