Saturday, October 15, 2011
William Colby wore many guises: intrepid Cold Warrior, cool technocrat, international man of mystery and, to critics of the deadly covert operations he ran in Vietnam, "war criminal."
The maker of a penetrating new documentary, "The Man Nobody Knew," which Friday opened in Los Angeles, had a less formal epithet for the former CIA head: Dad. But Carl Colby, an Emmy Award-winning director and producer, admits that even his father's wife and children often were at pains to decipher him.
To his family, William Colby was a ghost-like presence, a man who led the exotic, dangerous life of a John le Carré master-spook but projected the image of a mild-mannered bow-tied bureaucrat. For years, his son avoided digging beneath the multiple aliases, unsure of what he'd find.
"I thought, 'Why wouldn't I turn the cameras onto my own father?'" Carl Colby, 60, said by phone last week. "I never did it because whenever I would talk to him about anything meaningful or personal or revealing he would just sort of cloud over and become opaque, and give me that kind of wan smile, and just say, 'That's your department.'"
In "The Man Nobody Knew," Colby lays out his father's remarkable career ascent, detailing his daredevil paratrooping into Nazi-occupied Europe, his stints with the CIA subverting Italy's communist party and his stewardship of the notorious Phoenix Program of enemy "pacification" in Vietnam. Colby remembers protesters comparing his father to Gestapo head Heinrich Himmler.
As the movie spins forward, Colby's evenhanded narration evolves from the wide-eyed effusions of a young boy — "My father was always the coolest character I ever knew" — to more measured assessments:" He didn't have a lot of romantic ideas about spying. He saw it for what it was: dirty business."
The elder Colby ended his public career running the CIA under Presidents Nixon and Ford, amid tense encounters with Congressional committees determined to wrest back the powers they'd lost to the Executive branch. He died in 1996.