The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby is an extraordinary documentary about the long-time CIA operative who led the agency amid the post-Watergate scandals that almost destroyed it. It remarkably resembles The Good Shepherd, the 2006 fictional film about a dedicated Cold War spy across the years, right down to their eerily similar white brick colonial houses in leafy D.C. area neighborhoods. But the real life Colby and his wife are far more interesting than the characters played by Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie. Working for the CIA's predecessor, the OSS, during WWII, Colby parachuted into Nazi-occupied France and Norway to help the Resistance. After briefly working at the law firm of former OSS chief "Wild Bill" Donovan, Colby joined the CIA and helped Italy's Christian Democrats against the Soviet-backed Communists during the 1950s. He presided over U.S. covert assistance to South Vietnam in the 1960s, personally befriending doomed President Ngo Dinh Diem, and later organizing the "Phoenix Program" that neutralized Viet Cong killers. Colby took the helm at CIA as President Richard Nixon was collapsing and revelations about CIA's own scandals were fast emerging. He struggled for candor with endless Congressional hearings without betraying CIA assets and operations. Senator Frank Church's melodramatically waving a pistol before cameras to illustrate CIA assassination schemes iconically illustrated the nation's masochistic desire to castrate the CIA even as Soviet power was surging.
Appropriately for an old spook, Colby died somewhat mysteriously in 1996, his body recovered after he'd gone missing for several days, having apparently fallen from a canoe at his Maryland vacation home. His son produced this film to explore who his enigmatic father really was, without fully finding a satisfactory answer. Colby, a devout Catholic sometimes known as the "warrior-priest," was zealously devoted to his vocation of defending America, first from Nazism, and then from Communism. Like many of his "greatest generation," he was driven by duty and was not emotionally expressive, often exasperating his more introspective Baby Boomer children.
Most delightfully in the film, Colby's wife of 40 years, a very perceptive and spry octogenarian, is interviewed at length. She shared his Catholicism and devotion to the CIA. The whole Colby family met with President Diem shortly before his assassination during a coup countenanced by the Kennedy Administration. Mrs. Colby struggled with the moral compromises and largely shared her husband's confidence that the greater good required America's victory in the Cold War. Other interviewees include old CIA colleagues, former allied intelligence chiefs, and such familiars as Bob Woodward, Brent Scowcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, and Bud MacFarlane.
Colby bore up mightily during the congressional investigations of 1975 but never had the Ford Administration's full confidence. After the 1976 Langley ceremony installing his successor George Bush, Colby drove off alone in his somewhat battered looking car. He practiced law and consulted, abruptly divorcing his wife in 1984, then marrying a younger woman. Colby portrays his father as friendless and tragic.
Perhaps. Twenty years ago, easily finding his number in the phone book, I invited Colby to speak about his newly published Vietnam memoir to my Methodist church outside Washington. "I'm not even sure I'll be alive then," he laughingly said of the date several months away. He enthusiastically appeared at the church breakfast, sharing his strategic analysis of the post-Cold War world. The most charming man I've ever met, he left us all feeling like his new best friends, though of course none of us would see him again. Colby concluded by describing his recent visit to Moscow, recently freed from communism, and where he was now ignored as merely a tourist. After walking around the sites of Red Square, he smilingly realized he had conducted his own "personal victory tour."
Colby lived long enough to witness the fall of the two great tyrannies against which he had dedicated his life. He seemed more vindicated than tragic. His son describes him at life's end as no longer interested in living longer. If so, it's because his full life was completed.
J. Edgar is another film about a zealous public servant whose life was about as long as Colby's but, who unlike his CIA colleague, never retired and never allowed marriage or family to distract him from his exclusive love for the FBI. The sexual orientation of the lifelong bachelor who was often seen with his FBI deputy director Clyde Tolson is the topic of endless prurient fascination. How director Clint Eastwood would handle Hoover's personal life provoked much speculation.
The answer is that mostly Hoover was what he appeared to be, a tireless bureaucrat who created a public image and carefully lived within its parameters. More unfairly treated is Tolson, prissily portrayed by Armie Hammer, who earns a stern rebuff when he plants an unwanted kiss on Hoover. In Eastwood's telling, Hoover was warped into a lonely, repressed figure by his controlling mother. An affair with actress Dorothy Lamour is briefly alluded to. Otherwise, Hoover grimly bulldozes through most of the 20th century as America's most powerful lawman, relying on Tolson and his ardently dedicated secretary of 54 years, Helen Gandy, portrayed by Naomi Watts. As the unshakeable ruling Trinity of the FBI, they were unassailable. Upon Hoover's death, Gandy dutifully shredded documents, while Tolson inherited Hoover's house, allowing their chief to take many of his secrets to the grave.
Leonardo DiCaprio is surprisingly effective as Hoover, perhaps the best dramatized portrayal ever. Even his make-up works as Hoover becomes jowlier and heavier across six decades. Scenes from the teens, 1920s, 1930s, 1960s, and 1970s are evocatively captured. Hoover's watching various presidential inaugural precessions on Pennsylvania Avenue from his Justice Department balcony capture his power and timelessness across eight presidencies.
There are historical errors of course. Hoover is shown preparing to blackmail a newly elected FDR with an FBI dossier on First Lady Eleanor's supposed hotel tryst with a young leftist companion. This actual encounter was years later, and the report, which turned out to be false, was shared with FDR after Hoover already had formed a strong alliance with the President, who apparently never discouraged his FBI director from surveilling his wife or her leftist friends. Hoover is also shown dictating a nasty anonymous letter to Martin Luther King about his sexual infidelities. That letter was actually composed by an FBI subordinate whom Hoover later fired. As former Hoover associate Cartha "Deke" DeLoach recalled in his own memoir, Hoover would have been "horrified" by the letter, which was "not his style." Eastwood reportedly consulted DeLoach for the film but seems to have ignored his counsel here.
That Hoover was supremely dedicated to the FBI's independence is captured by the film's portrayal of his dismissive comments about Joe McCarthy and his fears of a Nixon presidency. After Hoover's death, a foul-mouthed Nixon is portrayed ordering seizure of the legendary files. Too late! Helen Gandy was already completing one of her last acts of devotion to her chief.
Hoover and Colby, both uncomplaining and unself-reflective public servants during the 20th century's greatest conflicts, are difficult for contemporary times to understand. But whatever their faults, America weathered a tumultuous century partly because of such men.