When he was 25, James Hogue enrolled in a Southern California high school under a fake name, posing as a 16-year-old. He was eventually discovered and arrested for fraud, which he promptly followed by applying to Princeton under a different fake name. Upon acceptance, he deferred his enrollment by a year - so he could finish his jail sentence first. He was later unmasked and arrested again, this time because a girl who attended Palo Alto High School recognized him.
Hogue's fascinating story is presented in "Con Man," a documentary by Jesse Moss, a classmate of Hogue's when Hogue was claiming to be a kid named Jay Huntsman. For his film, Moss was granted access to police reports and interviews made during Hogue's final arrest, and he spent an obsessive amount of time tracking down former classmates, cellmates, reporters, and eventually Hogue himself, all in hopes of understanding what made Hogue tick.
The problem, however, is that Moss' film is far too short - just over fifty minutes - and not entirely inquisitive enough to get to the heart of Hogue's actions. We get plenty of "what," namely a careful, detailed telling of Hogue's two scams as seen through the eyes of those around him, but we barely get any "how" or, more importantly, "why." How did this man from Kansas manage to convince an Ivy League school to not only let him in under the false identity, but let him into their exclusive clubs? And why would this person, who could get a legitimate education anywhere (Hogue was, after all, extremely intelligent and an excellent student), decide to commit massive amounts of fraud in order to sneak into Princeton, especially after he was just arrested for doing the same thing?
Moss' interview with Hogue hints at some answers. Hogue insists that his need to lie is an addiction and complains that nobody offers treatment for such a thing. But this is as open as he gets; he spends the rest of the interview fidgety and aloof, afraid to say too much. And Moss, pleased with finally getting a chance to meet this recluse who has declined every other interview opportunity before, is unwilling to pressure Hogue into answering the tough questions.
And so we're left to put the pieces together ourselves. We get hints: former friends tell how the Princeton-era Hogue was always distant, avoiding eye contact, hiding from himself. Childhood friends tell of a first try at college (under his own name) that went bad when he failed to be the school's best at track and cross country. Discussions of Hogue-in-hiding joining his new school's running teams and overpowering the competition round out the picture of a man disappointed with his youth, determined to have a second try, his extra years of practice now allowing him to defeat the school athletes who once topped him. At both schools, it was his only flaw; had he kept to himself, his rouse would have worked, but his eagerness to show off in sports led to his downfall both times.
What we get, then, is a vague portrait of a sad, lonely man fixated on the self-appointed disappointments of his past, so desperate to remedy them that he would invent new identities to do so. Which is fascinating stuff, no doubt, and yet Moss' film is so light and shallow and eager to defend his actions that we never truly get to the heart of the story. We get the facts, but we do not get their importance or their underlying drive. Moss' film is interesting only because Hogue is interesting, and "Con Man" does nothing extra to dig deeper.
Example: At one point, a reporter insists that Moss is Hogue in disguise. Doubt, then, is then cast upon the entire film, as the audience wonders if maybe there are some shenanigans afoot. But no - this angle is dropped as soon as the sound bite ends. Moss shows no interest in responding, or even toying with such a notion, and so he simply moves on, eager to finally get us to the real Hogue, who winds up being not much of a find. (It seems the reporter's statement was included because it sounded cool, not because it added anything to the story.) "Con Man" is a series of lost opportunities, held together only by the power of the man at its center.
As a documentary, the video ranges from solid to iffy, depending on the source. New interviews seem to have been shot on digital video, and as such look clean and crisp. Archival footage is often grainy, although plenty of the "archival" stuff is new footage that has been filtered by Moss to make it look older than it is, sort of an 8mm feel. Presented in the original full frame (1.33:1) format.
The Dolby stereo track sounds fine, effectively balancing the interviews with the film's musical score. No subtitles are available.
A short photo gallery presents pictures and press clippings from throughout Hogue's life, with captions explaining each image.
Twenty minutes of deleted interviews seems to indicate that the film could have been longer, yet these interviews offer very little to the overall picture. They're worth a quick look, but there's nothing vital here.
The 1944 documentary short "Princeton," clips from which appear in "Con Man," is presented here in its entirety (although it's labeled as "excerpts from"). The print is scratchy but the sound is pretty good, and the film's calming, sales-pitch tone is of curious interest.
The set concludes with a text biography of Moss, Docurama's standard "about us" page, and a series of trailers for other Docurama releases.
Hogue's story is interesting enough to be worth a spin, but Moss' film doesn't quite do its subject justice. Rent It.