After being inundated with the constant misrepresentation of the truth, whether it be from James Frey, Michael Moore or the Bush administration, it isn’t surprising to see that people in the U.S. have an innate skepticism about the media and those who control and shape them.
The lines between escapist entertainment and exploitation have blurred to the point where consumers don’t care they have become one and the same, and behind all of that, there is always someone profiting from this backhanded approach to reality.
The subject of Lasse Hallstrom’s swift, entertaining new film “The Hoax” is exactly one of those people. Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) may be one of the oddest success stories in American history, but Hallstrom’s film never loses sight of the fact that this is truly an American story.
A second-rate writer desperate to ingratiate himself into the society of the intellectual and powerful, Irving, along with his friend and partner Dick Susskind (Alfred Molina), concocted a scheme in 1971 so outrageous and unbelievable it is amazing to see how far they got. Irving, slick as snake oil, convinces top publishing company McGraw-Hill that he has attained permission to be the official biographer of tycoon and American legend Howard Hughes from the subject himself. He became the top priority of McGraw-Hill and one of the more recognizable literary figures in the nation.
Irving had never met Hughes or any of his aides, and he never received permission to write a book about him.
To pull off his ruse, Irving went to outstanding lengths to acquire information about Hughes, stealing and copying material from Hughes’ former business manager (Eli Wallach). He pocketed the money given to him for research and used his flower-child wife (Marcia Gay Harden) to open a Swiss bank account. He went so far as to impersonate Hughes in fake recorded interviews, putting on a pencil-thin mustache and slicking back his hair in order to get into character. Irving came dangerously close to believing his own fabrication.
None of this could have occurred if it weren’t for the ingenious way Irving manipulated those around him, and that comes through completely in Gere’s performance, the best of his career. The actor, like the film, never plays for sympathy toward his con man character. He plays him with the ebullient nature of a kid pretending to be an adult, living only in the moment and blatantly ignoring thoughts about going straight. It is a characterization Gere has fun with, and his lack of vanity at playing a man whose goals are so self-serving proves how good an actor he is. It is also a credit to Hallstrom that he never forgets the dark undertone to Irving’s life: He is a con man who will eventually be caught red-handed.
The film’s biggest asset is how it becomes a political piece without overreaching or sacrificing the central story. The shadow of Vietnam hangs over the film, and one of the subplots shows how President Richard Nixon’s paranoia about what Hughes might reveal about his political practices in Irving’s book led to the break-in at the Watergate hotel (the book was one of the items sought in that investigation). With this, viewers see how the media, real or not, affect all, and how in the middle of the 20th century, there was virtually no one in power that the public could have, or should have, trusted with the truth.
“The Hoax” was written by William Wheeler and directed by Lasse Hallstrom.
“The Hoax” received 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.