I'm accustomed to readers flipping out on me because they think I've spoiled a movie for them. (For the record, I try to warn people if I'm going to reveal any big surprise—as I will here—and if they want to stop reading that's fine with me.) What really blows my mind is readers who complain that I've ruined a documentary for them. Such was the case when I reviewed Dear Zachary (2008), about an ugly child-custody battle that ended in August 2003 when the mother killed the child and herself. The story had been national news, but somehow I was to blame for mentioning this shocking development in my review, as if I were obliged to protect the ignorant. This puts me in a real jam, because in November I'm going to have to write about Steven Spielberg's biopic Lincoln and I don't want to be a killjoy by telling you how the Civil War turned out.
Perhaps I'd better get used to the pressure, because in today's theatrical marketplace documentary makers are under the gun to deliver not just a story but drama and heightened suspense. Bart Layton's debut film, The Imposter, is a case in point. A veteran producer of such TV documentary series as Syfy's Paranormal Witness and the National Geographic Channel's Breakout, Layton illustrates his talking-head interviews with extensive physical reenactments, persuasively staged and tightly edited. Fortunately for viewers, his story—about a French-Algerian man who managed to get into the U.S. posing as the missing teenage son of a San Antonio family—has already been told in "The Chameleon," an excellent 2008 New Yorker article by David Grann. Long and detailed, it allows one to parse Layton's movie a little more carefully than someone just walking in, and to spot the way Layton reshaped the story to make it more ambiguous, more tantalizing, and, in general, better material for a lobby poster.
Grann begins his story in France with a tale of a damaged soul who became a master con man. Frederic Bourdin was born in 1974 to an 18-year-old French mother and an Algerian immigrant whom she never told about the birth. She couldn't care for the child and left him with her parents; by his teens the boy had become an outcast because of his mixed racial heritage, and by age 16 he'd begun to invent identities for himself as he bounced around Europe from one foster home or orphanage to the next. When he reached adulthood, he kept passing himself off as a minor, partly to take advantage of social services but also to find some sort of guardian or emotional center to his life. Bourdin's life took a fateful turn in October 1997 when, faced with the threat of prison in Linares, Spain, he contacted the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia, and managed to obtain a faxed report on Nicholas Barclay, who had been missing from San Antonio, Texas, since 1994.
Layton chooses to focus on the Barclays, a mere chapter in Bourdin's 15-year career of child impersonation but an ideal property for a real-life thriller. Nicholas Barclay was 13 when he disappeared in June 1993; playing basketball with some friends, he called his mother to ask for a ride home, and after his older half brother, Jason, told him to walk, he was never heard from again. The opening scenes of The Imposter remind you how the disappearance of a child leaves the family wounded beyond healing. "The thought of what somebody could have done to him . . . it give you nightmares," admits Carey Gibson, Nicholas's half sister, who was in her late 20s when he disappeared. "It came to the point where, you know you're not gonna find him alive, but you just wanna find what happened to him." Beverly Dollarhide, the boy's elderly mother, remembers, "It never made the news. It wasn't news to them."
Because the boy's disappearance never got a screaming media treatment, Layton doesn't have much footage to work with. There are a few photos and video snippets of 13-year-old Nicholas, but most of the story unfolds through talking-head interviews that continue on the soundtrack as actors play out the events being described. Layton is an old hand at this sort of thing, and I can't fault his storytelling skills as he re-creates the cross-Atlantic drama of October 1997. Carey Gibson became the family's envoy, flying out to Spain to collect her long-lost brother even as Frederic Bourdin, obtaining a better photo of Nicholas Barclay, discovered to his horror that the boy had blond hair and blue eyes. Layton edits their stories together as they converge, adding a nervous Bernard Herrmann-like score to shots of the 31-year-old woman venturing into a strange land (the actress is a ringer) and the 23-year-old imposter dyeing his black hair and getting cheap tattoos to match the ones reported on Nicholas.
"Your heart takes over, and you want to believe," Gibson told Grann. Of course Nicholas would have grown up in the intervening years, and Gibson noted a resemblance to her uncle. Bourdin had concocted a bizarre backstory for Nicholas Barclay: the boy had been kidnapped, transported to Europe, and held as a sex slave by a crime ring involving high-ranking U.S. military officers. He spoke with a European accent now because his captors had beaten him whenever he'd tried to speak English; his eyes were brown now because they'd injected chemicals into them. In Madrid, Gibson swore under oath that this was Nicholas Barclay, and the imposter was granted a U.S. passport. Layton includes home video of family members greeting the stranger as he cautiously follows Gibson through the gate at the San Antonio airport, wearing dark glasses, a scarf, and a baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes. The only missing member of his family is his half brother Jason, who'd been partly responsible for Nicholas's disappearance.
Bourdin's scam soon unraveled. Charlie Parker, a local private investigator hired by the tabloid show Hard Copy, talked to an ophthalmologist who debunked the story about Nicholas's eye color having been chemically altered; he talked to a dialect expert at Trinity University who assured him that Nicholas's Texas accent would have returned after he got home. Interviewing Nicholas, Parker instructed his cameraman to zoom in on the boy's ears, which can be used for identification, and found they didn't match the ears in an old photo. Meanwhile, the FBI was launching an investigation into the alleged sex-slave ring and called Nicholas in for questioning. Nancy Fisher, the agent handling the case, came away convinced that he was an imposter, but when she contacted Beverly Dollarhide asking for a DNA sample, the boy's mother balked. Shortly thereafter, the mother contacted Parker to tell him she'd seen through Bourdin's ruse, and the FBI, having taken the imposter's fingerprints, matched them with a set of Bourdin's prints that were on file with Interpol.
The final twist came when Bourdin, apprehended and facing trial, turned the family's credulity against them and accused Beverly and Jason Dollarhide of having been involved in Nicholas Barclay's disappearance. Jason had a history of cocaine abuse and violent behavior, and after Nicholas vanished police had been called out to the home numerous times to break up fights between Jason and his mother. (Oddly, Layton never reports, as Grann does, Beverly's long history of heroin and methadone addiction.) Fisher and Parker both questioned Jason Dollarhide about the case but found him uncooperative, and several weeks later he died of a drug overdose. Jack Stick, a federal prosecutor in Texas, began investigating Nicholas's case as a homicide, during which time Beverly, maintaining her and her son's innocence, passed and then flunked a lie detector test. But there was no physical evidence of any crime; there wasn't even a body. Ultimately the investigation was dropped.
Of course, in the media no one's required to drop anything. Grann devoted 935 words of his 11,667-word New Yorker article to the accusation, and he provided such an extensive record of Bourdin's criminal career, his lifetime of deception and misdirection, and his deep emotional problems that Bourdin's ungrounded charges of foul play were easy to discount. But the article was reprinted in the Guardian, where a subhead played up the irresistible plot twist, and The Imposter is pretty much built around it. "There are two sides to every lie," insists the lobby poster. Carey Gibson, by far the most credible and articulate family member, rips into Bourdin's story, reminding us that he's a pathological liar and that her dead brother Jason is "a perfect scapegoat" because he isn't around to defend himself.
"Show me one piece of evidence . . . just one shred of actual proof," Gibson demands. "The biggest, funniest one to me—hilarious—is that we went and picked up a complete stranger to hide the fact that we killed Nicholas, or someone in my family killed Nicholas, when, through four years that Nicholas was disappeared, we were the only ones looking for him. Why would we go pick up a stranger to hide something that didn't need to be hid?" She has a point, but that doesn't stop Layton from following Charlie Parker out to Beverly and Jason's old house, whose current owner allows him to dig up the backyard in search of a body, and ending The Imposter with an overhead shot of the two men staring over a deep, empty hole that feels very much like a grave. All they really have is circumstantial evidence and their own suspicions, but those sure make for a juicy mystery. As Gibson herself put it, your heart takes over and you want to believe.