Documentary filmmaker Jesse Moss was in the presence of greatness when he attended high school in Palo Alto, California some 15 years ago. One of his classmates was a track star of seemingly unending talents, a dynamic young man with a mysterious past and a sparkling future. Unknown to Moss and everyone else, that kid was actually an exceptional impostor in his mid-20s.
Moss's Con Man attempts to track the false and confusing life of this man, a chronic and elaborate liar by the name of James Hogue. While Hogue's exploits -- and motives -- become more intriguing with time, Moss's efforts to chronicle them can leave a curious audience generally unsatisfied.
In the film, Hogue's path is traced by Moss himself as he first recreates past steps, and then embarks on his own personal search for Hogue, a bizarre man whose crowning achievement was lying his way into Princeton by sending them a sparkling application... while serving time in jail. In presenting Hogue's journey, first-time documentary director Moss makes the kind of rookie mistakes one might expect: overusing the same stock footage when he's in a jam, moving the story along with an occasional lack of smoothness, and delivering some items with a little too much gravity.
But Moss does have a clear understanding of, and talent for, suspense, and his ability to reveal Hogue's fascinating timeline of lies is one of his strongest suits. We learn of Hogue's schemes bit by bit, and when Moss goes back to the late '70s to one of the more defining moments in Hogue's life, it reflects the potential strengths of Moss's storytelling. Con Man comes off as a kind of lite documentary version of Catch Me If You Can.
Except that James Hogue never made off with anybody's money, never passed bad checks, and never jet-setted around the globe. So when we finally meet the man on camera, we await a big payoff. Why would he fabricate such stories and pseudonyms? What it is he about? Why did he work so hard when he attended Princeton under a false identity? Unfortunately, Moss doesn't train the focus on Hogue long enough, just teasing viewers with a bit of the power that could have been. The final result is a documentary somewhere between Dateline NBC and Frontline, with Jesse Moss's talents definitely leaning toward the latter.
Reviewed at the 2003 Independent Film Festival of Boston.
Don't mess with Utah.