William Colby was a master spy, may have been the ultimate American soldier-spy, and often receives the blame for unraveling the CIA’s full capabilities by revealing the organization’s deepest, darkest secrets (known as “The Family Jewels”) to Congress. Written and directed by Colby’s son, Carl, this film has an ambitious task: to reveal the elder Colby’s true character and intentions and somehow bring a son closer to understanding a father whose very nature insisted upon deceptive shields. It could have been Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets My Architect, instead it’s The Fog of War meets 60 Minutes but without much bite.
The trouble is that while Colby has one helluva story to tell, he’s not particularly adept at telling it. He, like the rest of us, wants to understand how a seemingly ordinary man becomes a spy, one who conducts covert operations while his family lounges comfortably nearby on picnic blankets. He wants to unravel the relationship that his father had with the entire family––including first wife, Barbara––emerge with a portrait of a man who was both loved by those closest to him and respected by his peers. In essence, he wants to give flesh to this ghost. But it’s hard to find such things in this vacancy of a man, although we keep hoping for it through more than half the film.
The pacing is remarkably slow and the reminiscences of early life with the elder Colby are fascinating, but they don’t lead us anywhere special. If we’re expected to gain an audience with his spirit, what we get instead is a retelling of the events that ultimately led to America going to war in Vietnam. The war occupies a disproportionate portion of the film. Enough so that we lose sight of the director’s initial intentions as the film devolves into Fog of War- Lite, down to Michael Bacon’s derivative score.
Colby becomes Director of the CIA in the ‘70s and reveals the organization’s corrupt past, including countless instances of illegal and inappropriate activities between the ‘50s and ‘70s. Colby’s intentions were, perhaps, noble––he wanted to reform the organization especially in light of the then-recent Watergate scandal in which, it was said, the CIA was directly involved. This era and Colby’s early days in the CIA are most fascinating but his eventual departure from the organization in 1975 (George H. Bush replaced him) and his mysterious death in 1996 are not dealt with in an entirely satisfactory manner. They seem to happen in fairly quick succession with no further mysteries about the man revealed. He leaves the CIA, wonders around a bit, goes boating one night, doesn’t return and is found dead.
We end where we began, not knowing much about a fascinating but apparently unremarkable man whose actions and thoughts were in fact highly remarkable.
Bob Woodward, Donald Rumsfeld, Seymour Hersh, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft all appear. A host of deleted scenes, an interview with filmmaker Carl Colby, a photo gallery, and a CIA timeline comprise the extras, which do little or nothing to illuminate the film itself.
A more seasoned storyteller might have handled the elder Colby’s legacy with less care, but we may have in fact emerged with a real portrait of this man nobody knew.