The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby is a personal documentary of a largely impersonal nature. That’s more by necessity than by design: As the title suggests, William Colby wasn’t a man anyone would describe as an open book, and even his son, director Carl Colby, has difficulty pinning his father down over the course of this film. William Colby went from World War II OSS officer to CIA field agent working covertly against USSR-supported Communist parties in Rome to heading up the CIA’s activities in Saigon as America accelerated toward the Vietnam War.
He became CIA Director at one of the agency’s more tumultuous times, when Congress was investigating its activities and its very existence. When not manipulating world events, Colby was a taciturn Midwestern Catholic father of five (in the narrative version of his life, he’d have to be played by David Strathairn) who, his son muses via voiceover, was “tougher, smarter, smoother, and could be crueler than anybody I ever knew. I’m not sure he ever loved anyone.”
That observation, which comes toward the end of the film, might give the impression that The Man Nobody Knew is critical of Colby. It isn’t—at least as a strategist, he comes across as measured, competent, and pragmatic in difficult situations, concerned with doing the right thing even as that becomes impossible, because the available choices all mix good and bad. But the film makes it clear that the qualities that make a good spy (or spymaster)—being secretive, calculating, reluctant to share, distrustful—make for a terrible everyday human, incapable of the intimacy many expect from a husband, father, or friend.
The balance between portrait of a man and history lesson never comfortably evens out in The Man Nobody Knew. Carl Colby narrates portions of the film, sharing his feelings about his father in a way that makes his absence from the screen unfortunate, and that make the montage of archival footage and recollections from the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Zbigniew Brzezinski seem like they belong in a more emotionally remote production. The Man Nobody Knew is far better with matters of the public record than with matters of the home, which may sum up its subject better than any talking-head interview.