Saturday, 4 August 2012

THE MAN NOBODY KNEW: IN SEARCH OF MY FATHER, CIA SPYMASTER, WILLIAM COLBY - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Personal Doc Strictly By The Numbers and as Unimaginative as its Unwieldy Title.

The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father,
CIA Spymaster William Colby

(2011) Dir. Carl Colby


Review By Greg Klymkiw

Yes, it's unfair to expect something to be what it isn't, but what it is, is so bland and inconsequential, that what it could have been is, indeed, a far more interesting prospect than what exists.

William Colby is one of the most fascinating subjects in 20th Century American history. A spy for over 30 years, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mastermind of the notorious Phoenix Program in Vietnam and the guy who spilled his guts to Congress about the innermost workings of the CIA is more than enough to generate an amazing documentary.

That Colby's personal life was one of secrets, deception, betrayal and cold, mean abuse of his children, adds yet another fascinating layer.

That this particular film is written and directed by Colby's son Carl - with unfettered access to anyone he wanted for interviews, an abundance of family photos, a wealth of newsreel footage and a story told in his own words and voice, one would expect far more than this glorified episode of A&E Biography.

The movie is so utterly by-the-numbers and without the stylistic scope a great feature documentary needs to rise above the mundane, that one's level of disappointment is profound indeed.

Carl Colby tells his Dad's story from beginning to bitter end and while one is marginally engaged in the facts, what's finally lacking is a personal filmmaking voice, in spite of Carl's personal voiceover and recollections.

What we get are mostly a series of talking heads - some interesting by virtue of the subjects themselves, while others - not so interesting. There's not a damn thing wrong with talking heads - nothing at all, but there is a problem with them when they're trotted out with all the panache of a television documentary.

God knows, a similar film in terms of subject matter was Errol Morris's absolutely stunning portrait of America's former Secretary of war. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara has a consistency of style, feels like the work of a genuine filmmaker (as opposed to that of a competent TV-doc-hack) and in spite of Morris's semi-objectivity, one feels like it's a far more personal film that Colby's.

I think where Colby blew it is by not being an integral presence on-screen, charting the life of his Dad and confronting, as well as ferreting out, aspects of his father's professional and private life. In fact, I have to admit I expected a strange cross between a Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore approach, blended with the straight up in your face self-reflective style of Alan Zweig.

We get none of this. All we do get is a ho-hum TV-doc that might be watchable if one had channel-hopped through enough stations and the pickings were so slim that one could finally only settle on this movie.

This is not the stuff of a dream factory that cinema - even in the genre of documentaries - should be.

The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby might well be feature length, but it's not a feature. Seeing this on a big screen would be like going out to the movies to watch TV.

If you're at all interested in the subject, Colby's movie is watchable.

No more. No less.

Perhaps it's up to a real filmmaker like Errol Morris to make the ultimate documentary about William Colby - a cold, calculating, but brilliant spy who ultimately got a raw deal from those who benefitted from his decades of service.

At one point in the film, the young Colby reveals utter disdain for his Dad. It's not disingenuous at all. We believe it because his words and tone of off-screen narration seems alternately cold and bile-ridden.

If anything, though, we feel the sort of sympathy for his Dad that Carl Colby was perhaps not hoping for. The math here is simple. Dad = Great Spy. Son = Competent TV director.

I finally have no idea what Carl Colby was trying to accomplish here, but whatever it was, it's pretty inconsequential compared to his Father's accomplishments.

"The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby" is in a very limited theatrical release before its home entertainment debut. In Toronto, it playing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. For tickets and more information, feel free to visit the theatre's website HERE.

If, some reason you are compelled to buy this movie, feel free to support the maintenance of this site by ordering the picture direct from the links below.