As the title warns, there’s a void at the center of The Man Nobody Knew, Carl Colby’s doc on his father William Colby, a WWII OSS star and former director of the CIA during the Vietnam War. As well-documented, Colby was a wiry, soft-voiced blank, remote both at work and at home. The same man who (in)famously unleashed the CIA’s “Family Jewels” in the ’70s, in hopes of creating a more accountable government, also surprised his wife by divorcing her soon after leaving his post in 1975 (to be succeeded by George H.W. Bush), not to mention bore a son who would make a doc on him titled “The Man Nobody Knew.”
Luckily, those expecting an autobiographical therapy session on Carl Colby’s non-relationship with his distant father (a la My Architect, on Louis I. Kahn) will emerge unsated. Colby may remark on his late pop’s lack of warmth—he only used the word “friend” when angry with someone, for instance—but his interest is borne less out of a psychological void than from the fact that he led a truly interesting (and underknown) life. Interviewees consistently refer directly to our director (“your father,” “your mother,” etc.), but Carl remains off-screen and regulates himself to occasional cameo status in the narrative. He keeps himself out of the way and, unmarred by sentiment, pieces together a story that bears trenchant commentary on the difficulties in making decisions that traumatically affect both the world and the remainder of time.
Indeed, while The Man Nobody Knew is fascinating history—and stacked with archival materials and interviews, from golden-tongued historians to of Bob Woodward and Donald Rumsfeld, that are never less than organizationally impressive—it kicks into higher gear once the story hits ‘Nam. Here is where Carl Colby’s character flaws come into play, as his attempts to help manage a war without compromising his lofty ideals prove rickety. Of course, Colby is too much of an enigma for close psychological study, but his son amasses enough material to paint a resonant portrayal of what it’s like having your hands on the controls in the middle of one of the century’s defining clusterfucks.