A fascinating documentary that suffers from an overload of recreated footage, ‘The Imposter’ is a good documentary that had the potential to be great. The subject itself is a remarkable one, and oftentimes the documentary is enthralling, but for me…I just kept getting pulled out of the tale by the recreations. At times I felt like I was watching an Oscar nominee, but other times I frankly felt like I was watching something on the A&E channel. Don’t let me misconstrue this as a negative review, since I recommend this documentary with a good amount of enthusiasm…I just simply want to make it a strong point of the one thing that I didn’t like in the flick. Director Bart Layton obviously wanted to heighten the drama already inherent in the story, and while I don’t especially mind that, I just wish he had done a better job of it in the end. I still think you all should see it when it comes out on Friday (or today, depending on when you’re reading this/when my embargo on this review is lifted, as I saw it back at the beginning of May), but keep this in the back of your mind so you’re not jarred when you sit down to watch it. Still, it’s the best documentary I’ve seen so far this year, all things considered. Take that for what you will…
The subject of this documentary is a man, a family, and a situation so unbelievable that you can be forgiven for thinking that this can’t be true. It centers around a grieving family in Texas and a French con man. About a decade and a half ago, American authorities were alerted to the presence of Nicholas Barclay, a boy from Texas who’d been missing for 3 years. At least, that’s what the authorities in France believe. In reality, as we’re privy to early on, this isn’t the missing boy, but instead Frédéric Bourdin, an impersonator who uses the identity of the kid to make a getaway to America. He fully expects to be caught at every single turn, but when he’s shipping “home” to be reunited with his “family”, a shocking thing happens. Despite being way too old to be Nicholas (among other obvious reasons), the family welcomes him with open arms, never questioning anything. Bourdin is as surprised as anyone, but it doesn’t stop him from keeping up the charade. All of the big moments are done with dramatic recreations as I mentioned above, but the continuing highlight is a real interview with Bourdin himself. It’s the kind of story that would make a great thriller, but it’s all the more interesting for having happened in real life.
Going in, I was aware that there was some recreated footage (the IMDb page even had a cast list for the actors involved in that process), but I didn’t realize that it would become as big a deal as it is. Now, I know most critics weren’t as bothered by it as I was (though I’m still recommending the film, obviously), and in fact the documentary has almost universal praise so far, but it’s too noticeable for my tastes, so I can’t just let it go. The footage is just not on the same level as the rest of the project, so it’s a real issue. That’s what will likely wind up being the biggest talking point for the flick, and that’s a shame, as it has so much else to offer than simply one bad choice in terms of presenting part of the story.
Director Bart Layton does a great job here, short of that recreated footage, but I’ll get off that horse for a bit. He ratchets up the tension almost as well as Hitchcock did, making this a thriller as much as anything else. His ability to actually interview Frédéric Bourdin is a real coup for him, as Bourdin is one of the 10 most interesting characters in film so far this year. The man clearly has a few issues, but there’s something about him that just pulls you in. You should hate him, and in a way you do, but more than that you’re just fascinated by him. Layton’s biggest success is getting you to be as invested in this story as you are. My hat is off to him in that regard. He’s done a (mostly) top-notch job.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about ‘The Imposter’, so much so that I would have given this an extra half star if those darn recreations weren’t there. It doesn’t prevent the movie from working, but the documentary would simply have been better without them. I think it’s good enough still to get a Best Documentary Feature nomination, but time will ultimately tell in that regard. The bottom line here is that this is a very good documentary, but it’s kept from greatness due to a bad filmmaking choice. I still recommend it heartily, and this weekend you should seek it out. You’ll ultimately be glad that you did…
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