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Of families, Thanksgiving and master spies

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 21, 2011 - The documentary filmmaker Grace Guggenheim was in town recently to introduce a screening of Carl Colby's film about his father, the late CIA director William E. Colby.

Grace Guggenheim is a producer of the movie, which was in this year's St. Louis International Film Festival. It is titled "The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby," and for our purposes, only slightly ironic, we'll just call it "The Man."

It effectively nails the elder Colby for his direction, participation and complicity in the tragedies and failures resulting from America's meddling in the internal affairs of a number of sovereign nations, but especially our misbegotten involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts.

"The Man" moves fairly and judiciously, and with a thoroughgoing intelligence, through William Colby's career as an dedicated anti-communist, beginning with his service with the O.S.S. in World War II, continuing in postwar Italy when our government worked to circumscribe the popularity of the Communist Party and to promote the rise of the Christian Democrats, and from there to Vietnam in its post French colonial incarnation.

Either in person or as a commanding mastermind, Colby was there. Interestingly, his family was present as well: his wife, Barbara (a stunningly beautiful, dignified and articulate presence throughout the film), and his children, Carl Colby among them. Although the political situations that help to define the life of William Colby are as fascinating as they are depressing, they also are well documented -- unlike the relationship of this pivotal historical character to his family. It was this aspect of "The Man" I found so enormously affecting and ultimately so distressing.

Thanksgiving is upon us. It is an important moment in the ritual practices of family life in this country, and for many of us provides the first step up the chancel steps leading eventually to our energetic genuflections before the altar of Christmas. Because it is so family-centric rather than religious, its looming this week has very much to do with my reactions to "The Man." How do we get to the essence of family life, to the truth of it? How do we strip it of the mythologies that commonly define it for us and the romanticism that shores it up?

"The Man," I believe, works not only to expose the internal workings of an intelligence system as it ran off the rails but also to reveal the inconsistencies and dishonesties that run through and afflict family life. Forgive me for bringing up Tolstoy, but each unhappy family is indeed unhappy in its own way. The Colbys qualify in extraordinary and multiple ways. We have much to learn from observing them through the transparency of film.

I am perhaps more interested in "The Man" than many readers because I am in the midst of writing a lengthy memoir of my own unhappy family and my experiences growing up in Little Rock, Ark.

There, as it happens, I first gained awareness of the Guggenheim family and there I was persuaded first not only of its indelible contributions to American documentary cinematography but also its illuminations of Americans as a distinct, blessed, accomplished, diverse, glorious and, inevitably, understandably flawed geopolitical demographic.

Charles Guggenheim has strong connections with St. Louis. His early career included a stint at KETC, Channel 9 and at Washington University. His documentary of the building of the Gateway Arch - "Monument to the Dream" - continues its record-length booking at the Arch museum.

His wife is the former St. Louisan Marion Streett Guggenheim. His children are Grace, who carries on the traditions of Guggenheim Productions in Washington, and her brothers, Jonathan and Davis Guggenheim. All three children are involved in the motion picture business.

Charles Guggenheim came to Little Rock to make a documentary about the 1957 integration crisis, which was a defining moment in my political and intellectual development. I reconnected with Charles as an adult when he screened his movie, "The First Freedom" at Washington University. The picture is a celebration of American journalism and its protection by the U.S. Constitution in its Bill of Rights. When I was teaching journalism in the night school at Washington U., it was the first thing I showed my students.

When Charles died finally of pancreatic cancer a decade ago, after having gone 10 rounds with it, and as he was in the process of finishing a  cinematic memoir, "Berga," scoring knock-out punches with both, I wrote his obituary.

My relationship with the family and its continuing involvement with politics and art, and its commitment to grappling with issues that affect and sear us, has continued through the ensuing years. For me, the Guggenheims established the definition of gold standard for documentaries. And either actually or by interpretation, the Guggenheim tradition serves to inform the making of and my appreciation of "The Man."

It would be a mistake not to honor Nathaniel Kahn here also. His lyrical movie, "My Architect," is, like Carl Colby's film, a demonstration of the use of cinema in personal discovery - in Kahn's case discoveries of the tangled life of father, the genius-architect Louis Kahn. Both Nathaniel Kahn and Carl Colby found much to admire about their fathers, and a longing to have known them better, along with plenty to disturb them. Ultimately their artistic processes and intelligences provided better understandings of these towering figures for them, and for all of us.

Colby's discoveries, however, were of a quite more cosmic nature than Kahn's, involving as they did his father's history in ways that prevented the world's evolving organically, and their being central to changes that rained down on all of humanity through subversion, hubris -- and enormous loss of individual human lives, so many of them entirely innocent, so many of them bystanders in the political storms that swirled round about them.

Both the global and the individual obtain as "The Man" moves to its wrenching conclusion. In it, we observe wholesale national destruction, physical and psychological, as well as the astonishing revelation of the erosion of Colby's carapace by press coverage and interrogation by the U.S. Congress, both, by turns, altruistic, necessary, aggressive, relentless, partisan, poisonous, narcissistic and -- regardless of one's political point of view -- successful.

In the darkness of the viewing room, as these interrogations and revelations spool out, we see William Colby transfigured. His busyness, his dedication to his work, the long periods of time he spent away from his family are revealed as excuses, as permission to avoid emotional and familial entanglements. Such behavior is standard operating procedure for anyone involved in demanding occupational pursuits; no surprises there. And Colby comes to recognize and to regret them.

What is entirely stunning and singular is how immutables in his life - family, marriage, the Roman Catholic Church and the rigors and requirements they placed upon him, plus a blind dedication to a political philosophy - all are questioned by him eventually, and, in the most fundamental form of despair, are rejected and cast aside.

In that process, our fundamental trust in Truth setting us free is put on trial. Thus, what sets William Colby apart as something of an archetype, and what makes "The Man" an indelible act of cinematic consequence, is its revealing, fugue-like, the complicated, sometimes noble, sometimes reprehensible and ultimately utterly unpredictable life of William Egan Colby. Truth, here, did anything but provide revelation and emancipation from restricting personal bondage. In fact, its manifestation sentenced Colby to the most awful kind of penitentiary: genuine, unvarnished, unidealized, unromanticized, completely clinical self-awareness.

Freedom for "The Man" came not through some epiphanic moment on some metaphorical road to Damascus. Rather it came to him on an April evening in 1996 when, after cocktails and dinner, he took paddle in hand, and set out alone from his house at Rock Point, Md., in a canoe, never to return.

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