Do you remember the Clifford Irving scandal of long-ago 1971? The episode by now is little more than a footnote on a page of dreary American history, with Vietnam reaching its crisis and Watergate soon to come, but it was notorious at the time. An obscure fiction writer, Irving decided to boost his career by ghostwriting Howard Hughes’s autobiography, based on a series of interviews with the ultrareclusive multimillionaire. His book promised to be the monster publishing event of the decade, and his publisher, McGraw-Hill, ultimately put a million dollars on the line for it. The only problem was the book was a fake. The interviews never happened; Irving simply made them up. And so a minor novelist became a major con man.

Con men are endlessly intriguing, and con jobs in the arts or literature particularly so. Jason Blair and the other recent cases of journalistic fraud pale in comparison to the majestic effrontery of what Irving tried to pull off. Faking the autobiography of an American icon-while the man was still alive!-required Irving’s audacity both in the corporate boardroom and on the page: cojónes and a literary style.

The Hoax follows the action as Irving (Richard Gere) and his accomplice, a children’s book writer named Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), undertake research road trips, spend long nights at Irving’s house fabricating the bogus manuscript, and survive daunting encounters with Manhattan editors, publishers, and lawyers. The publishing execs question the authenticity of what Irving is showing them, and threaten dire consequences should it turn out to be inaccurate, but finally can’t resist their own greedy desire to publish the book.

Instead of having us admire Irving’s cool audacity from the outside, director Lasse Hallström shrewdly dumps us into the middle of a nerve-wracking predicament. “Just look comfortable,” Irving tells the nervous Suskind, prepping him for yet another interrogation by the suits at McGraw-Hill and Life magazine. “Look buoyant!” We sweat it out as notes from Howard Hughes that Irving has forged on yellow legal paper undergo handwriting analysis. In another excruciating scene, as the manuscript is being scrutinized by an outside expert intimately familiar with Hughes’s life, Irving and Suskind flee in panic and hide in a stairwell.

Like last year’s Capote, The Hoax depicts the writer-as-born-liar, but much less darkly. Writers, the film suggests, are incorrigible confabulators. Even when Irving tries to tell his wife the truth about an affair she has accused him of having, partway through his confession he begins to modify his story-borrowing something Dick Suskind actually did and grafting it onto something else that he, Irving, did in fact do, but not on the day in question; and on and on, fashioning a tapestry of half-truths and evasions for his wife.

Character is Hallström’s forte, and his best films (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Once Around, and My Life as a Dog) serve up sympathetic, warmly humorous portrayals of childhood and of adult eccentricity. He isn’t interested in exploring the notion that beneath the charm, quick wits, ambition, and intelligence of a con man lies the heart of a stone-cold thief. Instead, an air of frat-house high jinks surrounds Irving and Suskind’s escapade; at the core of the fraud is a hearty horselaugh. “I hand them three pieces of yellow paper,” Irving laughs, “and they give me $100,000.” He can’t believe they’re getting away with it. It’s too easy and too much fun.

Where Richard Gere plays a con man who never tells the truth and laughs his way to hell, life has assigned Ralph Nader the thankless role of a man going straight to heaven with nary a chuckle along the way. Well, he can now consider himself thanked. Nader’s saintliness is the subject of Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan’s An Unreasonable Man, whose title echoes a famous pronouncement of George Bernard Shaw. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world,” Shaw observed. “The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

A sly hagiography, An Unreasonable Man shrewdly incorporates just enough criticism of Nader to present a facsimile of evenhandedness. It lets the critics in-then lets them hang themselves with their own overheated verbiage. Listening to Nation columnist Eric Alterman froth away about Nader helping George Bush win the 2000 election (“Nader is a Leninist.... Thank you, Ralph, for the Iraq War.... Thank you, Ralph, for the destruction of the Constitution”) reduces a legitimate criticism to a caricature of liberal wrath, and almost convinces you to let Nader off the hook.

Those inclined to insist on the truth of the numbers in 2000 (Bush won Florida by 537 votes, while Nader got over 97,000) will probably not change their minds. But eventually An Unreasonable Man wins you over-or rather knocks you over the head-with the bulky catalogue of Nader’s service to the nation, leaving you dazed with gratitude and awe. The film lays out Nader’s early career and his emergence as a kind of consumer-advocate rock star following his pathbreaking 1965 exposé, Unsafe at Any Speed, which dared to take on the automobile industry. We revisit the tangy irony of GM attempting to trap the ascetic Nader in an illicit sex scandal by planting women along his way, then a GM executive confessing during Congressional hearings to a campaign of personal harassment (Bobby Kennedy provides a moment of articulate outrage), and finally the company being forced to pony up nearly half a million dollars in an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit-seed money, it later turns out, for Nader’s Raiders.

To say that Nader has been indefatigable in pursuit of consumer protection is a wan understatement. At one point, the list of federal safety regulations that owe their existence to him scrolls down the screen, and you can’t help gasping at how productive his efforts have been, compared with, say, your typical senator (or six senators.) By way of assessing his impact on American life, Mantel and Skrovan invite us to imagine Nader as a brand, and what our level of brand awareness would be if his name appeared on every seat belt, airbag, tobacco warning label, and household safety product. We live in a world made safe by Ralph.

What has it cost him to get so much done? The subjugation of Nader’s private life to service-“extinction” might be the better word-would seem to exceed that of a Trappist monk. Not only has he never married; apparently, he has never even dated, an abstinence that causes one of his biographers to throw up his hands in frustration. Nader himself all but preaches celibacy as a condition for effective public service. “There’s the hard core and the spouse corps,” he tells one of his Raiders who’s considering getting married. “Which side are you on?”

There’s no doubt which side Nader is on. He is married to his ideals; they are his only true and abiding companions, and his coldly analytical reflections on friendship can be a little chilling. The film recalls an episode in which Nader humiliated a former Raider, Joan Claybrook, who served as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the Carter years. Claybrook worshiped Nader, but when she counseled patience on getting air-bag legislation through Congress, he barged in on a press conference and berated her in front of the cameras. Asked about it decades later, Nader delivers a stark deconstruction of personal loyalty, dismissing it as “mawkish sentiment while people are dying on the highway.” What, he asks, is the point of being loyal to someone who is doing something you disagree with? “Personal loyalty cannot come at any price,” he says. “It becomes an indulgence.”

If you look around and see a political system that is hopelessly compromised, then perhaps Nader is the necessary antidote, a man who, this film believably suggests, has never made a compromise in his life-including the compromises of sex, friendship, pleasure, or a weekend off every year or so. You would never want to be him. On the other hand, working for him would surely have its rewards. It might not be as much fun as forging a book and going on a spree with a million dollars. But consider the job pitch he used to make to prospective Nader’s Raiders: Come work here, he told them, and you can bring your conscience with you to work every day.

How many employers, then or now, can offer that?

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the 2007-04-20 issue: View Contents
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