If novelists John le Carre and Alan Furst were interested in true-life stories, they might have written books about William Colby. Instead his son Carl Colby, a documentary filmmaker who has made award-winning films on Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Frank Gehry, and Bob Marley, among others, has turned his ample investigative attention to the life of his father, a military man and CIA director whose career spanned ill-fated chapters of American history: the Kennedy presidency and the Vietnam War. George Bush Sr. followed him as CIA head.
By everyone's admission, William Colby was a man with many secrets, a more than fertile subject even in the conventional Freudian paradigm. The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby features extensive interviews with Donald Rumsfeld, Brent Scowcroft, Bob Kerrey, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Schlesinger, Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, Tim Weiner, a heady 85 in all; the film works best as a family story set against post WWII.
Given that 9/11 provided the impetus to examine the uses of counterintelligence through the window of his father's career, the film is urgent viewing in its focus on an era so often referenced now, in the current U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Many pertinent questions arise: on morality, abuse of power, transparency, accountability, the human cost of clandestine wars. Impressive archival footage provides a context for some of the most iconic Vietnam War era photographs, particularly the one of a villager shot in the head at close range.
Amidst the paternal quest, Colby discovers his mother, her loneliness as helpmate to her husband's long absences and secretive life, and a family tragedy involving the illness of his sister Catherine. William Colby died mysteriously, in a boating accident by all reports. But Carl Colby knows better.
After a special screening on Monday, Carl Colby, now silver-haired, spoke about his childhood living abroad, both the ordinary aspects and the drama of it, at a dinner at Osteria del Circo attended by Dorothy, his vivacious wife of 5 years, producer David Johnson, and an enthusiastic crowd of seasoned media types and writers alert to the nuances of his story: Morley Safer, Bob Jamieson, Susan Brownmiller, Alix Kates Shulman, Marie Brenner. The film opens this weekend at the Lincoln Plaza Theater, an unusual venue for a documentary. Colby said, he felt the film would be most resonant for an upper west side/ east side audience with a sense of history. His next project is a fiction feature.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.