Saturday, September 21, 2013

The results of secrecy, private and public, haunt Carl Colby's family tale, THE MAN NOBODY KNEW

Who says being too close to a subject robs you of perspective and objectivity? The subject of Carl Colby's documentary, THE MAN NOBODY KNEW: IN SEARCH OF MY FATHER, CIA SPYMASTER WILLIAM COLBY, is indeed his own father. And yet it is difficult to imagine any movie getting closer to that strange and distant man nor seeing him any more honestly and fully than his son has done here. So, yes: What we see is nothing like idolatry. Nor is it any kind of Daddy Dearest expose. Instead, it's a direct, thoughtful blend of family, politics, career, history -- and mystery. And it is almost entirely riveting.

The documentary is Mr. Colby's third (the filmmaker is pictured at left), so he's had some training. Still, this is quite an undertaking: trying to capture someone who just might be the most "distant" dad ever experienced, ever absentee, while still being in the same room with his family. At the end of this quietly shocking doc, the viewer is likely to expel a long-held breath and murmur, "Thank god for mom."

William Colby (shown below) was, from all accounts, a highly religious man and a devout Catholic -- but one who evidently could only see a stern and unloving god. This religious bent runs through everything from family to politics and spying, and what happens to Colby and our country under our then Republican leaders' reign is the kind of thing that will make you further understand why we need Wikileaks, together with all the Mannings and the Snowdens yet to come.

Colby and his family, shown below, had in some ways an idyllic early life of travel, entitlement and sophistication. Colby fils lets us see this at the same time as we begin to understand the various lacks under the smooth surface. This seems especially true for mother Barbara (standing, center left, below), who is finally left holding the proverbial bag.

As for the politics involved, we learn of everything from Colby's role in swaying elections against the Communist Party in Italy to the hugely controversial Phoenix Program in Vietnam.

The film is full of surprises, small and large, especially for those of us who, even if we followed the history back then, could not have know nearly all that was going on. While the movie may seem like a kind of model documentary, it is also true that few filmmakers have had anyone this "juicy" and handily accessible (well, in an inaccessible way) as the subject for their film.

The younger Colby has made the very most of this, I think, giving us in the process a portrait of a man, a family, a country and an era that are sad, shadowy and strange. (And we fools thought we knew what was going on at the time!)  The Man Nobody Knew, from First Run Features, opened theatrically two years ago this month, and though well-reviewed, disappeared rather quickly. Now that it's here on Netflix streaming, you've no excuse not to see it. (Note: Colby's movie also makes a fine double feature with Robert De Niro's directorial effort The Good Shepherd. Both films deal with similar themes -- one in documentary style, the other fictional.)

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