Movies at the end of 2011 have become a nest of spies. Just in theaters, there’s a respectable drama, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; a gleeful action flick, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol; and two earnest documentaries, The Man Nobody Knew and Garbo: The Spy — all vying for the same space to roost. Outside of movies, there’s the good old fashioned heavily-biased news: in Iran last month, 12 CIA operatives were uncovered spying on that country’s nuclear program; and a New York Times article I just came across warns that China’s intelligence agencies may have become the most sophisticated in the world. Can all these artifacts in one season be just a coincidence, or is there a greater picture to all of it, something requiring a gathering of better intelligence to figure out? The argument may work for fiction films, but The Man Nobody Knew, at least, appears to have stumbled blindly into the spy trend: convincing or not, it’s clearly a labor of love, which is unfortunately its greatest asset.
Not that its assets matter too much. Most people will probably choose Mission: Impossible, at least in the short run, and maybe with good reason. Respectable and informative isn’t generally how we like our spies in pop culture. Real spies, like William Colby, the subject of the intricately titled The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby, are hardly romantic figures.
Colby is portrayed — by his own documentarian son, no less — as a taciturn, essentially unknowable man who thrived on information. He was also perfectly placed to become a master spy. He bombed Nazis for the OSS during WWII. Once an agent for the CIA, he played the role of a diplomat in Italy in the 40s while funneling in money to ensure a victory for anti-Communists. He served as ambassador to Vietnam in the 50s and was high enough in the agency by the time of the war to implement Operation Phoenix, the infamous CIA campaign to root out a North Vietnamese insurgency, village by bloody village. In 1973, as the war was winding down, the CIA was gaining attention, and Colby was made the agency’s director, only to spend his brief tenure defending state secrets to irate Senators at a series of public hearings that put the CIA’s future on the front burner. Colby was, in short, a major 20th century figure who’s been mostly forgotten, an achievement both he and his agency would probably be proud of.
It’s a shame that the only person willing to make a movie about him has been his son, whose affection for his father prevents him from going deeper than simply recounting the spy’s whereabouts while occasionally commenting that no one ever really knew him.
The most interesting thing about this movie isn’t anything that the younger Colby uncovers. His doc is fairly standard stuff, with its harshly lit Errol Morris closeups and somber newsreel montages. Its only real quality is sustaining the illusion that it asks tough questions, a tactic that takes skill, but doesn’t equal artistry. What’s far more interesting is the unspoken connection between real-world spying and documentary filmmaking. Both professions are inherently concerned with manipulating the flow of history — the difference being that with spies, it’s the future of history, and with documentarians, it’s the past. Regardless of direction (is history really linear, anyway?), both jobs mean forming events according to the world view of whoever happens to be the boss. In the case of spies, it’s a government; with filmmakers, a studio. So here is a doc where the text is fascinating historical stuff, but the subtext is even better: a man whose life was dedicated to manipulating the future has his life manipulated by his own son, whose life, in turn, is dedicated to manipulating the past. I’ll wager you won’t find so complex a relationship in Mission: Impossible no matter how much intelligence you have.