Thursday, December 15, 2011

Documentary busts spymaster Colby myth

Documentarian Carl Colby has made a film (opening Friday at Landmark’s Maple Art Theatre in West Bloomfield) that is not only absorbing – indeed fascinating - about one of America’s most searing political episodes, the Vietnam War and its aftermath, but a bit of a myth-buster to boot. The film, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby, is also a kind of personal meditation about his father, castigated by anti Vietnam War critics during the 1960s and 1970s both for his role in the so-called Phoenix counter-insurgency program in Vietnam and later as director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Nixon and Ford administrations. The filmmaker takes us to the start of his father’s role as a patriotic World War II vet and one of the first people tasked with the idea of surreptitiously setting up small military groups with expertise to subvert the Nazi war effort through critical disruptions in infrastructure such as blowing up bridges and trains. The whole concept of post-war Special Forces, used extensively in Vietnam, “came out of these operations,” the documentary says. Carl, a normal American kid, always backed his father 100 per cent. The fact he had a covert military role just made Colby Sr. “the coolest character.” As the Vietnam War ramped up in the early 1960s President John F. Kennedy, a war hero himself, also had a romanticized view of behind-the-scenes military operatives and promoted this to the hilt. This “James Bond” and “third way” (neither traditional military nor diplomatic) found an outlet in Project Tiger, which dropped spies behind enemy lines. William Colby also believed that the best way the South Vietnamese could defend themselves from North Vietnamese invaders was to arm themselves in protective encampments supported by the South Vietnamese and American military. Colby left Vietnam in 1962, Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and the Phoenix program started falling apart. South Vietnamese authorities and military mistreated countless peasants, whether bonafide enemies or not, and the clash of cultures between materialistic Western American soldiers and rural Buddhist Third World villagers became “shockingly disruptive – and offensive,” as one former Phoenix member Senator Bob Kerry put it. This wasn’t the way to win hearts and minds, as the phrase went at the time. We know what the war’s outcome was. Post war Colby was appointed CIA director. But it fell to him to explain to Congress a range of illegal activities – from assassination plots against foreign leaders to spying on domestic critics – that occurred before his tenure. He testified 32 times in one year alone. Carl says his father had to tread a fine line between protecting the legitimate covert activities of the agency and revealing the illegalities. Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft called the task “enormously complex” and said he didn’t “know how (Colby) could make it from day to day.” The film has interviews with dozens of key characters from the 1960s and 70s – from defense secretaries James Schlesinger and Donald Rumsfeld to investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh, who exposed CIA spying. The clips are taut, mixed with fascinating film clips of the period – from rural Vietnam War scenes to testimony on Capitol Hill. A lot of this may seem to be a retread from dozens of other documentaries about the period. But it’s fresh - in many ways, because it’s from the viewpoint of a family member and because it shows Colby as a person, not simply a war criminal caricature. One might expect the son to defend his father but that’s not what’s going on here. Says Colby about his dad’s critics: “My immediate reaction was, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Then I’d find myself thinking, ‘Well, who was he really?’” But as someone whose missions in Vietnam and as CIA director might have had honourable intentions William Colby had to take the fall for their eventual corruption. Says one former official of the period, “He became a target, that’s the way Washington works.” Particularly eloquent is Carl’s mother, Barbara, an intelligent articulate woman who was kept at arm’s length by her husband. She was shocked when he asked for a divorce, a further sign that he was in essence an unknowable person. Scowcroft calls Colby a “tortured soul.” Says Carl, “I’m not sure if he ever loved anyone and I never heard him say anything heartfelt. I came to understand the man nobody knew or at least I thought I did.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Toronto has slipped in showing independent film

A recent weekend trip to Toronto brought delight and disappointment. Delight because I finally got to step inside the TIFF Bell Lightbox, (left) this new shrine to all things cinema on King St W. and John St. This massive block long building has been open just over a year and is the new headquarters for the Toronto film festival. But it’s much more than that. The building has five cinemas, a museum, an upscale restaurant, a swanky bar and a trendy cafeteria. It also happens to have a 46-storey condo rising from one end of it. The building is amazing from a design perspective, with wide spaces, Bauhaus design elements, and more than plush cinemas. We saw Lars von Trier’s latest, Melancholia. The five storey building also has lots of glass and at night people inside appear ghost-like or as shadows to those on the street below, which is probably Hogtown’s premier party strip. The shadows of course evoke the idea of the flickering elements in a film. We wanted to get to the current museum exhibit Grace Kelly: Style Icon, and certainly much of the building was decked out in the exhibit’s motifs, including a photo booth and the doors of the elevators. But it was too late when we arrived. Oh well, I’ll check it out when I’m in Toronto next week....But the Lightbox experience aside it seemed Toronto had slipped a notch or three in showing independent films. I hadn’t been downtown in four years. But last time I was there the Carlton Cinemas on Carlton near Yonge was still a venerable art house with nine screens. The theatres may have been small and seats uncomfortable but it was still a cornucopia for independent film. Not anymore. Cineplex Odeon had closed the theatre in 2009. Then Edmonton-based Magic Lantern Theatres decided to take it over and reopen with much expectation the art house environment would be recreated. It definitely hasn’t. Sorry to say but the theatre is schlock or mainstream central. They made concessions to two independent films - The Women on the 6th Floor (Philippe Le Guay) and Woody Allen’s latest, Midnight in Paris, which is playing in such wide release it almost seems mainstream. Everything else there I could easily see at Silver City.....Even the Bell Lightbox’s offerings were disappointing considering the sophistication and stature of the complex. Showing Melancholia was fine, I suppose, but not out of the ordinary for an art house anywhere. The others films on show? Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki), The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski), Disney’s Enchanted (Kevin Lima 2007), Marnie, part of the Icy Fire: The Hitchcock Blonde series of films associated with the Grace Kelly exhibit, and Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, 1981) of all things. Again, all pretty much "mainstream" for art house theatres anywhere. The Lightbox's scheduling was also strange. The paper guide had no mention of Melancholia and The Mill and the Cross on the night we were there yet the films were listed on the online schedule.....The Royal Cinema on College St. seems to be keeping the art house tradition alive and offered a European Union (that’s what it was called until, I guess, they kick Greece out) Film Festival.....And looking at the listings in Toronto’s Now entertainment weekly there are some other venues that screen non-mainstream but the line-ups didn’t seem particularly electrifying.