Film Festival Today

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Film Review: “The Man Nobody Knew”

Written by: FFT Webmaster | November 4th, 2011

* **1/2OUT OF 4 (104 minutes)

What everybody knew was that the slight William Colby (hardly the prototype as a James Bond-type poster child) was appointed in 1973 by then President Nixon to be the 10th director of the Central Intelligence Agency, until President Ford replaced him with George H.W. Bush in 1976 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandals. We also knew they he died in 1996 at the age of 76 when his body was discovered on the shores of the Potomac eight days after embarking on a solo canoe outing. However, other than his public service record and achievements, as the title of Carl Colby’s title conveys, nobody really knew the man.

Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker Carl Colby, William’s eldest son, tries to enlighten the world on the enigmatic persona who seems to have had a single-minded life purpose, personally trying to better this country’s interests around the world. Carl’s comprehensive exposé, for the most part, succeeds as best he can to convey what made his father tick by interspersing two aspects of his life: his public service and his family life outside the spotlight. However, what we end up with is possibly more questions about the senior Colby than when we had going in.

William Colby testifying before Senate Church committeein 1975

His career as a real life spymaster, (referred to by the cumbersome subtitle, “In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby”) begins as an OSS officer who trained for missions parachuting into Nazi-occupied Europe. This eventually led to his involvement with post-war covert operations such as the alliance with The Vatican in the late 1950’s to remove the Communist Party, heading the CIA in the Far East during the Vietnam War buildup, overseeing the coup & the assassination of Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 Saigon, and becoming the man in charge of the controversial Phoenix Program during the Vietnamese War 1967-1972. This latter program put the term counterinsurgency into our vernacular. His patriotism and tenacity led to his appointment as Director of the CIA-only to see it all explode in 1975 when he defied the President after taking the higher moral ground by revealing to Congress the agency’s darkest secrets.

However, the more fascinating aspects of the documentary are the private intimate moments including photos and footage only a family member could provide. The personal history includes, what at first, appears to be an idyllic life when the family settled with him in Italy. However, later in William’s career, after recognizing the inherent dangers his family faced (Carl remarks as a young child he at times heard bombs exploding in the distance outside of town)William chose to continue his oversea assignments alone, leaving his family, including his devoted wife Barbara (whom he later divorced after 40 years), behind in the states. We also learn that it was up to Barbara to care for Carl’s sister who suffered from epilepsy and anorexia nervosa which led to an early death in her twenties. William avoided his daughter’s care and illness, having no patience for her condition. He seemed to have carried this guilt throughout his life.


(l to r) Catherine, Barbara, William, Carl and Jonathan Colby

The rare archival footage incorporated throughout is nothing short of stunning. The clarity of the film stock is totally devoid of scratches and literally jumps off the screen. Carl supplies over 80 interviews with family, former colleagues, prominent government & media members (including former National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and Director of CIA James Schlesinger, as well Pulitzer Prize journalists Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh, and Tim Weiner) in his attempt to complete a knowing portrait of his father. Although, the sheer number of talking heads tends to bog down the proceeding, overall, this is an impressive work that tries to humanize as much as possible a stalwart Government servant & patriot who ultimately became an indirect casualty of the Vietnam War but whose service to the country was immeasurable.

The film opened October 14 at L.A.’s Nuart Theater and October 21 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. It begins a run at Washington’s D.C. E Street Theater & Fairfax Va.’s Cinema Arts Theater on October 28, after which it platforms in other theaters around the country.
(More film reviews can be found at Jay Berg’s Cinema Diary)

Carl Colby has been involved with over 40 documentaries that have taken him all over the world with assignments in over 30 countries. His films have covered a wide array of subjects including films about Franz Kline, William de Kooning, Bob Marley, Frank Gehry, George Hurrell, and Franco Zeffirelli-the latter of which won an Emmy Award for the 1984 PBS production “Zefferelli’s Tosca”. Among his numerous career achievements were producing and directing films covering Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday” which won Best Film at the USA Film Festival); Washington artist Gene Davis; & musical performance films on Kid Thomas Valentine and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Clifton Chenier and his Red-Hot Louisiana Band, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. He also produced a TV version of the Obie Award-winning musical “One Mo’ Time!”. His interest in space exploration resulted in his producing and directing the award-winning film “Voyager: The Grand Tour” which won First Prize at the 3rd International Animation Festival in Hiroshima, Japan.
During the interview Carl gave credit to producers Grace Guggenheim, daughter of the late great filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, and David Johnson for pushing him to be more personal and to try and reach further-which was hard for him but realized in the end it was necessary. In addition, he told me he decided not to put more of himself in the movie. That it was a conceit he did not want to do. “If you see me now, you’d see that I’m kind of a settled OK looking guy. But how could I pull that off in the movie? I want to be the 8 year old who adores his dad in the beginning. I want to be the 12 year old who later hears rumbles coming from 30 miles in the outskirts of town and I’m beginning to get kind of worried. I want to be the guy who’s 17 years old hearing people call my father a war criminal. I want to grow up in the course of the film. That’s one of the secrets, the techniques that I think the film pulls off without people being aware of it.”
On commenting on his career over the years making documentaries about interesting personalities and why it took him so long to point his camera at his father, Carl remarked that he realized early on he would be fine if he talked with him about Gorbachev, Putin, Chechnya, or the drones-he would have an opinion and it would be very interesting, “but he wouldn’t go into the emotional zone. He would say ‘that’s your department, friend’. Or if I asked him why did you divorce my mother. He would just wave it off like not say anything. So it would be very frustrating. So only afterwards when he died that I thought well maybe I got license now. I’ll approach it from the underneath.”

JB: How long did the project take you to complete from start to finish?

CC: It took about 5 years. I started thinking about it about 10 years ago while I was watching CNN’s coverage of 9/11 and I saw Wolf Blizer interviewing James Baker two hours after the towers fell. He asked Baker how did it happen and Baker said that he traced it directly back to the Church and Pike Hearing back in the 70s when William Colby the CIA Director was forced to reveal the CIA’s “Family Jewels”, which led to the dismantling of America’s and the CIA’s ability to conduct clandestine action and covert activity-sort of endangering America. I thought, wow, that’s pretty interesting. My father’s been dead five years and it seems like he’s relevant. And then, 2 weeks later I see photographs of CIA operatives sporting beards and wearing turbans and riding camelback & horseback with The Northern Alliance in Northern Afghanistan against the Taliban-and I thought well that’s like the OSS. I then thought that maybe there’s a story here. So I started more as a professional profile of my father because I do more profiles of individuals and I thought maybe that’s an angle. And then I interviewed my mother and everything changes.

JB: You elicited commentary from an extensive list of about 85 individuals ranging from top government officials, CIA employees, the media, and, as you mentioned, your mom who puts a softer human light on your father’s personal life outside the CIA. Were any of these participants harder than others to convince to be interviewed?

CC: Well, I took it very seriously that this is my one shot. If you ask somebody like James Schlesinger, who you might know from your family but who’s not going to otherwise give you an interview, when I went to pre-interview him , I’d better know what I’m talking about. So for the CIA and in a project like this, I have to know something in order to get something. So, I did a lot of reading and researching which has kind of been a hobby of mine my whole life, reading about current affairs and international relations. I was pretty versed in the flow of the dialogue of the conversations about these things. So, I did a lot of homework spending about a day and a half, two days writing each Email invitation, researching what I would I ask these people and then I’d put it in the Email. A small group said sure I’ll talk to you. I knew your dad. Usually that was the old guard CIA people. The current CIA people or the top journalists and others-they wanted to see that I had some substance here; what was I up to and was I up for this task. Tim Weiner, someone like that. I have to know my game. Then I think they perceived that I was going to do something serious so they participated.

JB: Were there any public figures you actually wanted to interview but who refused to cooperate?

CC: Well, nobody in particular refused. I just sort of had a hard time connecting with Dick Cheney. His office was very interested but he was writing his book, or he had another heart attack, or had some heart issue. So that sort of derailed that for a while. And President Bush and Henry Kissinger I just had continuing dialogues with and it just never came to past because the film takes a certain direction and at some point you go after interviews that are serving your story and that are serving the narrative in your writing and making.
JB: Did you encounter any type of government resistance while making the film?

CC: No, not at all. I had no secret access or any privilege access to CIA or anyone else and I obviously made it very clear from the beginning that this is no exposé. I not interested in revealing classified secrets or documents or anything of that sort, or operations, or any one’s names. I just basically asked for what the normal American citizen would ask for and took it from there.
JB: Near the end of the film, you narrated after your dad left the CIA that he could be crueler than anyone you ever knew. Can you elaborate on that statement?

CC: He lived at the tip of the spear. He had a mission. He was very serious. He could be serious. He could be friendly. He was the opposite of The Great Santini. I mean, he was not a bombastic, competitive, physically brutish character-not at all. He was kind of affable and quiet and would have a discussion with you. And he would write to me and I would write back to him cordially. What I think I meant by that was that I just don’t think that he operated in the emotional zone. It’s just not his territory.

JB: So emotionally, he was cruel.

CC: No, I wouldn’t say that. He’s just not operating in that zone. And I think he had a very low boiling point. So he could absorb pain, an intense amount of pain, and he could inflict pain. And I don’t mean that in a very negative way. I just think that he was a warrior. And he had a job to do and he did it very well. There are warriors now: General James Mattis , or General John Allen, or a number of other generals I can name out in Afghanistan today who are fighting the battle. Would I say that they were mean? I wouldn’t necessarily say always that way but there is a cruelty in a way that when you accept loses and when you are able to withstand loss. Most people fold. Most people can’t take it. He was always quoting Truman: “You can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”. His kitchen was white hot, and he wasn’t leaving the kitchen.

JB: And that comes across in the movie.

CC: He was one of these guys, I don’t know if you ever feel like you’re in danger or whether you feel the necessity to do this, but some people carry around a phone number or two that they’re going to call, if something happens. Like, whom are you going to call? Well, I think if you knew him, I think you’d want his phone number in your wallet.

JB: Did you ever hear your father commenting how he felt about Bush Sr. succeeding him at the CIA? Did he ever have an opinion about that?

CC: I think initially he thought that Bush Sr. was a very effective unifying force in a way that helped the agency. That he took on the mission of the individual officers. He rallied around them and tried to support them and cast them in a positive light-in a sense sold the CIA back to the Congress. He tried to rally support for the mission of the CIA even though it started to be decimated by that time. Basically, the gate was up. I mean the Congress had had its fill of the CIA and wasn’t going to fund much of it. And that was actually a pretty treacherous time. I mean the mid 70s was not a hay day for the CIA and for America. We’d just lost the war in Vietnam. The Russians were ascendant; they were threatening us. There were 30,000 Cuban troupes in Angola. The Caribbean was kind of in flames. Latin America was starting to bubble up. South America was kind of up for grabs. Most of Africa was kind of in play. And the oil crises was hitting. And, so it wasn’t a really strong time to be an American.

JB: You included an enormous amount of amazing archival footage. And I was really impressed with the pristine quality of the images-devoid of the usual scratches and imperfections you usually get with such stock footage. Did you go to any special lengths to clean up these images?

CC: One of the luckiest most fortunate things that happened to me is that I allied myself with Grace Guggenheim as my archival producer and one of our key producers. And she is the queen of the archival footage. Her father’s legacy is extraordinary-he made not only heartfelt and beautiful films but very simple films. From a film standpoint, I learned from him. Grace set about really ferociously combing the National Archives and a lot of commercial sources for the best possible footage. She did a super human job from everything down to the transfers to the no scratches-just doggedly going after the very very best. Particularly the stills and how we animated the stills-just everything. It just looks gorgeous on screen. And then we decided at the end, thanks to our main producer, David Johnson, to go ahead with the 35mm transfer. And the sad part is that I worry about what is happening to history and what’s happening to those films, which are few and far between. We paid every possible right. We did everything correctly in terms of royalty payments and rights payments and clearances worldwide and we got the best possible transfers. I worry that people are either not using this footage or that they’re stealing it and putting on YouTube. It’s kind of sad in a way that we’re losing our history. And I would give a huge amount of credit to Grace and to her father because of the example that her father set. He’s probably the finest filmmaker of his generation not only in documentary, but one of the finest filmmakers of the century.

JB: You did a great balancing act between showing the business side of your dad and the personal side, which is a hard juggling act.

CC: That was one of the hardest things. You really tapped into exactly the right film question. That was the toughest thing. Frankly, I couldn’t let 45 seconds go by or more without bringing my father back into the story. People say to me how come you don’t have anything about the Korean War or how come you don’t have about what happened in XYZ? I said, well, he’s not involved with that. It’s a tangent. It’s like you’re on a freight train from New York to Philadelphia and all of a sudden it takes a left turn to Atlantic City and all of a sudden you’re lost.

JB: This might explain why it took you 5 years to get it all together.

CC: Exactly.

JB: Finally, are there any more theatrical films in your future?

CC: I tapped into some interesting arenas here so I’m going to look at that and there are a couple of other documentaries that I’d like to do. I’m working on a book that would come out with the release on  TV & DVD late next year. That’s kind of the next step. And then I’ll try to launch one of these other projects.

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