Before seeing this excellent documentary, I knew little about William Colby beyond the fact that he was at one time the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The film, by the subject’s son Carl, uses interviews, archival film footage, archival sound recordings, and a restrained but effective narration. And the title is accurate: this seems truly a search without a prior agenda .

William Colby was a paratrooper in the Second World War who went behind enemy lines to try to organize indigenous resistance in countries within the Axis orbit. After college and law school, he entered the CIA and was heavily active in Vietnam beginning with the Eisenhower administration. He was appointed director of the CIA by Richard Nixon around the time of the Watergate scandal. In this position, he tried to reform the agency that had been involved in illegal activities of which he knew nothing before becoming director.

In addition to being an intriguing character study, the film explores the relationship between a spy agency and the particular democratic culture of the United States and between it and the nature of the national self-image. The film also explores the relationship between the CIA professionals and politicians serving in Congress.

If no firm conclusions are drawn, either about the man himself or the cultural and political issues, this seems appropriate given the complexities involved. Indeed, the film takes a dramatic turn in the final moments when Colby, who has been a strong, composed presence throughout, seems to fall apart. It is noteworthy that Carl Colby avoids the extremes of hagiography and jeremiad not through trying to objectively distance himself from his father but by refusing to try to impose explanations on a very complicated reality. This shows a proper respect for truth, for his father, and for the audience.