Con Man (2002) (DVD)

The true story of an Ivy League imposter.

Meet Jay Huntsman, a 16-year-old track star, an orphan who grew up in a foreign commune. Then meet Alexi Indris Santana, a gifted Princeton student with an impeccable academic standing, and also a track star. Turns out neither of these young men exist. They’re really personas adopted by James Hogue, who successfully impersonated a high school student well into his 20s, and who successfully convinced the Princeton University admissions board that he’s someone he’s not.

Filmmaker Jesse Moss, allegedly a former high school classmate of Hogue’s, sets out to tell Hogue’s story in this documentary, mostly through interviews of those who knew him—or thought they did—and through archival footage and police interviews of Hogue himself. The results are fascinating in that someone could get away with everything he did, but also frustrating in that there’s little understanding as to why he did it.

Don’t go into this one expecting the lighthearted tone of Catch Me If You Can, which made a con artist’s life look slightly romantic and adventurous. Hogue’s story is more of a sad one, and viewers are left with the feeling that the only times he’s happy is when others believe he’s someone else. He’s described as being something of a loner, one who speaks in as few words as possible. In the ambiguous interview footage, Hogue talks about wanting to escape from his past, and about feelings of guilt.

This story is downbeat, but it’s not made overly depressing in this film. All the information is presented in a plain, straightforward manner. Moss has made a good choice by not going overboard on the dramatics, while not making the subject matter a joke either. There are some lighter moments, such as excerpts from a 1944 Princeton recruiting film added during key moments, and darker moments, such as audio clips from Hogue’s police interrogation. But overall, the style of the film presents the facts—or what’s close to them—in simple, easy-to-follow ways.

A tonal shift occurs in the final third of the film, in which Moss attempts to find out what’s become of Hogue in the present. Not surprisingly, Hogue is difficult to locate. Moss’s search for Hogue, with a series of dead ends and doors slammed in his face, is quite gripping, in that we in the audience are not sure whether he’ll actually get a chance to speak to the titular con man face to face.

There’s a very curious moment near the end of the film in which Moss interviews a reporter who accuses him of being Hogue in disguise. The reporter is absolutely convinced that he’s speaking to Hogue, saying his heart is “racing” being in Hogue’s presence. As fascinating as this was, it got me thinking: When dealing with a trickster like Hogue, can we really trust what we’re seeing on screen? Is this really his story, or is he in on it, crafting another hoax? I’m more than willing to give Moss the benefit of the doubt, but you never know.

The video quality tends to vary. The archival footage looks rough, as expected, but even some of the footage shot by Moss on his search for Hogue looks far granier than it should. Perhaps this was done by choice, but I don’t see why Moss would do this. The 2.0 sound is good, especially during the occasional use of music throughout. The best of the extras are the deleted scenes. Normally, viewers can tell why deleted scenes were cut, but in this case, they offer some fascinating anecdotes about Hogue’s behavior over the years, and they add a lot to DVD overall. We also get the complete police audio interrogation and the complete 1944 Princeton film for extras, as well as a short bio of Moss, a photo gallery, and a collection of trailers.

Just who is James Hogue, really? What compelled him to do all this? The answers are still not clear, but this documentary deserves credit for asking.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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