It is important to note right at the start that this film is not necessarily based on a true story. Yes, the events in question did happen, but the words “Based on the book by Clifford Irving” are central to understanding the way the events are depicted. Because this is a story being told by someone we will come to find is a very great liar, it puts a spin on our view of the film’s reality. The man behind “The Hoax” might just be putting another one over on the unsuspecting public.
Because you cannot implicitly trust the source material, this gives the film rich depths to exploit the central conceit of the story in many ways. There are conspiracy theories thrown in that seem like Irving’s way of explaining or justifying his forgery of an autobiography by eccentric aviation mogul Howard Hughes. We get glimpses of delusions that might shed light on Irving’s motives in the scandal. Should we take these as facts, desperate attempts to exonerate himself, or just clever tricks from a master of deception?
Clifford Irving, played by Richard Gere, starts the film as a struggling author whose most notable work is a poor-selling profile on an art forger (footage and commentary on both these figures can be found in the Orson Welles film “F For Fake”). In a last grasp for survival, Gere promises his editor Andrea (Hope Davis) the most important book of the twentieth century, and to make good on this promise he concocts a scheme, with the help of his friend Don (Alfred Molina), to forge Hughes’ account of his own life.
Because Hughes is so notably eccentric, Irving’s ways of covering his tracks succeed even better than he hopes for. As he tells Don, “The more outrageous I sound, the more convincing I am.” Soon, covering the truth becomes harder and harder, and he ends up putting his wife Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) in danger, as well as implicating Don. Hughes begins to try to discredit the book, and some of the aforementioned conspiracies come to light, one involving Richard Nixon (according to this film, Irving’s book is responsible for Watergate). These mysterious forces, whether they actually interacted with Irving or not, contribute, along with his constant lying, to his downfall.
Despite the film being about a lie, director Lasse Hallström is able to maintain a very realistic feel throughout, staving off the melodrama that he lapsed into on “The Cider House Rules.” The look of the film seems to match the 70s setting. Irving’s flights of possible fantasy match the tone and pace almost seamlessly, making it hard to tell fantasy from reality without some serious thinking. It’s as it should be: the truth is not handed to you, instead you have to work for it.
Richard Gere delivers a very strong performance, making both his portrayal and Irving’s lies completely believable. He pulls us onto his side; after all, what good would it be to make a story about a con man that you didn’t want to succeed? Both the fake autobiography and the reality presented in this film, with the help of the filmmakers, make Irving one of the supreme con artists of all time.