Lately I’ve been intrigued by movies about con jobs. It seems like we are bombarded with declarations about “other ways of knowing” which, whether they be astrological predictions, new age hokum, religious visions or scams, all seem to spring from the same well of misguided thought. The first three movies are all based on true stories and the forth is a documentary.
Number one on the hit parade is “Quiz Show,” which is about the fixing of the enormously popular game shows of the 1950s. Robert Redford directs an all-star cast in masterful dramatization of greed in the television industry. The acting is superb and the drama is edge-of-the-seat. John Turturro is a wonder as the Jewish nerd-genius Herb Stemple, and Ralph Fiennes embodies his antithesis, the pretty boy WASP Charles Van Doren who television and everyone else needs to love.
Next is “Shattered Glass,” about David Glass, the writer who scammed The New Republic, the in-flight magazine of Air Force One, with a series of sensational “true” stories that were pure fiction. Where Quiz Show turned on a smart government attorney who unraveled the con through dogged legwork, Shattered Glass hinges on a newly promoted editor who is far less popular than the writer he wants to believe, but can’t. Anyone who is upset with Hayden Christianson for his wooden acting in the Star Wars prequels will be pleased with his redemption as David Glass. Extras on the DVD feature interviews with the real-life Glass.
Leonardo Di Caprio is thrilling as he evolves from self-assured teenager to self-absorbed wreck in “Catch Me If You Can,” the true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. who had more poses—teacher, airline pilot, doctor and ultimately true-life jailbird—than a runway model. Some people were upset by Tom Hanks’ performance, playing the stiff-backed FBI man who chases Abignal, but he’s actually doing a fine job in a thankless role.
Last, is a documentary called “Con Man” about James Hoag whose moral compass never points anywhere, it just spins round and round. Hoag conned his way into Princeton, where he did very well until his downfall. This may sound rather dull, but we’re trying to avoid spoilers here. The tale of how he conned his way from high school to Princeton and what happened afterward make this a highly engaging tale of a con job that really didn’t seem to hurt anything except for the sensibilities of the conned. After we learn all about him, including the early college experience that cost him his self-control, the real-life Hoag appears in the documentary attempting to make sense of something that makes little sense at all.
Underlying all of these movies is a tragic will to believe that props up almost everything we read about in the skeptical publications. As for these con artists, their minds are like visiting an alien world for a rationalist.