Director: Bart Layton
A story too crazy to believe. It’s amazing how many good documentaries can be described that way, as telling stories that could never work as a fiction feature because you would just never be able to suspend your disbelief like that. Truth, certainly, is stranger than fiction and rarely has it been stranger than in Bart Layton’s The Imposter. Detailing an improbable con that, against all reason, actually worked (albeit briefly), the film is alternately fascinating and bewildering.
The Imposter begins with Frederic Bourdin, a French conman specializing in identity theft. In 1997, at the age of 23, he managed to convince Spanish authorities that he was a teenage American, eventually assuming the identity of Nicholas Barclay, a Texas teen missing since 1994. How Bourdin settled on this identity is actually kind of amazing in and of itself: he convinced authorities to leave him alone in an office for a night so that he could try to contact his family in the States, then called a number of police precincts in major US cities pretending to be a Spanish cop trying to determine the identity of a kidnapped American teen until finally finding a missing kid he thought he could pass for, and telling Spanish authorities that that was who he was. Unfortunately for him, he made a minor miscalculation in that he picked a blonde blue-eyed kid (he himself is dark haired, brown eyed, and olive complexioned) to pass himself off as, but fortunately for him the people he most needed to convince of the lie bought into it – including Nicholas Barclay’s family.
Successfully convincing Nicholas’ sister, Carey, that he was Nicholas was step one (a major step given the physical dissimilarity between him and Nicholas, the fact that he was seven years older than Nicholas would have been in 1997, and the fact that he spoke with a French accent). Step two was convincing authorities at the US Embassy, who actually issued him a passport so that he could “return” with Carey to the States, where he was welcomed back by the rest of the Barclay family, with whom he would live for the next several months until the story finally started to unravel. Part of the reason why it worked was because Bourdin created an elaborate tale of having been kidnapped by US military personal for the purposes of sexual slavery, a story which he used not only to “explain” the differences between himself and the actual Nicholas, but also as a means of preventing further questioning. Obviously traumatized by his experiences, no one wanted to push him and trod on eggshells around the subject of what he went through. Of course, the problem with that is that he attracted the interest of the FBI and other investigators who quite naturally wanted to know more about the US military engaging in sex trafficking, and his tale couldn’t stand up to even a little bit of scrutiny once they started to investigate and demand DNA proof of his identity.
The biggest question of The Imposter is how Bourdin managed to convince the Barclays that he was Nicholas, a question for which the film offers two potential answers. One, endorsed by the Barclays (in addition to Carey and her husband, Nicholas’ mother also appears as an interview subject), is that they simply wanted to believe so badly that Nicholas had been found that they became blind to everything else from that point on. It was a matter of the heart’s desire overriding the brain’s ability to reason, and since Layton depicts them as being, to put it kindly, “simple” people (Carey, recounting her reaction when informed that Nicholas had been found in Spain, remarks that Spain is “across the country”) it seems plausible that they could be taken in by Bourdin despite the prominent red flags.
The other potential answer is much darker. This theory posits that Nicholas was never missing to begin with but was in fact murdered and that the family is covering it up. According to this theory, either Nicholas’ older brother, a now dead drug addict named Jason, or Jason and their mother together, accidentally or intentionally murdered Nicholas while high. When “Nicholas” turned up alive, Carey then went to Spain, gave him enough information that he could stand up to a quiz from authorities about the details of the real Nicholas’ life, and then everyone simply pretended that he was really Nicholas because otherwise they would have to admit to knowing that Nicholas is really dead. This answer also seems at least somewhat plausible - at least within the context of how the film frames the question.
The success of The Imposter is due primarily to Layton’s storytelling ability, which tends more towards the cinematic than the strictly didactic. It has the shape of a thriller and Layton deftly manages to turn to narrative, taking it from sympathetic to the family, to suspicious of them, and then finally to something a little more ambiguous. It is also somewhat ambiguous in its view of Bourdin, who is treated with a degree of admiration simply for the audacity of his actions, but also, increasingly, as the story’s only proven villain. It’s a film that ultimately raises more questions than it answers, but it does so in a very engrossing and entertaining way.