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The Imposter

August 11, 2012
The Imposter

Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. In the case of Nicholas Barclay, that couldn’t be more right. I vaguely remember hearing about this case back when I was in college, but seeing it blown up big as life is weirder than I could ever have known without Bart Layton producing The Imposter. For those who love true-crime stories, this one must be seen.

Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared in 1994, never returning to his San Antonio home after playing basketball a few miles away. He was basically chalked up as a runaway, and the police didn’t pursue the case. Then, three years later in 1997, Nicholas was found in Spain. His sister, Carey flew out to retrieve him; he was granted a United States passport, and they returned to San Antonio together.

Nicholas was taller, which was to be expected; what wasn’t to be expected is that his blond hair and blue eyes had both turned to brown, and he couldn’t speak English without an accent. He explained to FBI Special Agent Nancy Fisher how he had been kidnapped, tortured, and sexually abused; the changes to his appearance were part of keeping him under control, as was the way he’d been punished for speaking English to train him out of it. Worst of all, the kidnapping ring was composed of military members.

Despite being asked not to speak to the media for fear of compromising an investigation, when private investigator Charlie Parker came on behalf of a newsmagazine Nicholas and his family were more than happy to grant interviews.

But while the interviews were going on, Parker noticed what you probably have already: none of this makes any damn sense. And this is for a very good reason, which I swear is not a spoiler: the boy that came back from Spain was not sixteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay.

He was, in fact, twenty-three-year-old Frédéric Bourdin. I say that this is not a spoiler, since Layton chooses to intercut Bourdin’s interviews with those of Nicholas’ family from the very start of the film, so there’s never really any secret about it. The film spends its time telling both stories in parallel, and laying out parallel mysteries: why did the French Bourdin try to pass himself off as a teenaged American boy? and why did Nicholas’ family believe him?

Now, if I were editing this documentary, I would absolutely go in much more of a Rashōmon-like direction, laying out the family’s story until it became apparent that Bourdin was an imposter, and then going back to retell the story from Bourdin’s point of view. Which is not to say that Layton doesn’t do an excellent job with the choices he made.

He is, after all, an old hand at directing and producing episodes of true-crime television documentary series, like Locked Up Abroad and Breakout. And this background serves him well as he deftly edits interviews, archival footage, and reenactments together into a seamless whole.

In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to approach this film as a double-length episode of one of that kind of series — an extended version made worthwhile by just how bizarrely fascinating this case still is.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies, fail.

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