“He was doing his job and she was the loyal wife,” says Carl Colby. “My mother believed in what he was doing, but it had to be moral, it had to be right.” Best remembered as the director of the CIA from 1973 to ‘76, William Colby emerges in his son’s carefully researched film, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby, as a puzzle. “He was tougher, smarter, smoother, and could be crueler than anybody I ever knew,” narrates Carl over family photos, his dad looking awkward in camping gear. The film—screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 13 March, followed by a Q&A with Carl Colby—sets the son’s contemplations alongside interviews with his father’s colleagues and footage of the events Colby tried to control: the coup that killed Nhu and Diệm Ngô, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam (an aborted experiment that spawned subsequent counterinsurgency strategies), the CIA’s assassinations. The film presents Colby as a product of his time, a soldier who parachuted from planes, who followed orders, who believed America’s interventions and his own “confessional” testimony before the Church Committee might “do good.”
Among all the ethical and political dilemmas the film raises, the memories of Carl’s mother Barbara are most affecting and most acute. “The threat was certainly there,” she says of the Cold War. As she explains her own allegiance to the cause, she also recalls the complexities of living her husband’s essential lie, needing to deny his work for the Agency. “I didn’t know very much at all about the operations, the techniques,” she says. “Sometimes it was difficult to ascertain who we were and where we were.” Her willingness not to know what was going on, indeed, not to know her husband, had consequences. She might as well be speaking for everyone who professed such ignorance, then and now.