‘Voyeur’ Film Review: Splitting the Difference Between Journalist and Peeping Tom

Riveting, unsettling documentary follows Gay Talese as he tries to profile a motel owner who snooped on his guests for decades

With the light-shining power of journalism, the scourge of sexual impropriety, and the privileged status of old white men at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness these days, the documentary “Voyeur” arrives at an ideal time.

Filmmakers Myles Kane and Josh Koury shadowed octogenarian”New Journalism” god Gay Talese — author of the famous Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and a handful of acclaimed non-fiction books — as he puts the finishing touches on a story he’d been following in some form or another for 30 years: the strange case of Colorado motel owner Gerald Foos, who secretly, proudly, spied on his guests for decades, keeping rigorous, clinical notes on his career-length status as a diehard peeping tom.

But what starts as a compellingly weird and titillating case of a celebrated prose stylist massaging a mega-perv’s ego into letting his story be turned into an article (for The New Yorker) and then a book (to be published soon afterward), soon morphs into a queasy portrait in mutually assured reputation-soiling when nothing goes quite as planned for either Talese’s reportage or Foos’s hope to be immortalized as a sex pioneer by a literary lion. By the end of this captivating if unsettling movie, Foos’s unpunished criminality notwithstanding, you’ll have plenty to chew on about the nature of the relationship between journalist and subject.

(And if you’ve already been offended by Talese’s “suck it up” defense of Kevin Spacey, you might go into this movie more than ready to see the ink-stained giant lose some luster.)

Foos first wrote to Talese in 1980, hoping to be profiled by the man riding high on the literary success of his controversial deep-dive into American sexual mores, “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” Foos’s allure as an interview subject was obvious: He’d bought a high-roofed motel in the 1960s and retrofitted it for the express purpose of watching a lot of bumping and grinding from a walkable attic platform, and through carefully placed ceiling vents.

It takes three decades, however, before Foos acquiesces to his name being printed, at which point Talese goes to work on the piece, describing his deal with Foos as, “for me to tell the truth, and for him to live with it.” The writer’s own file-clogged, book-lined, box-filled workspace, a converted wine cellar in his posh Manhattan brownstone, speaks to his grand sense of himself, including decorated collages that bring to mind a self-obsessed schoolkid’s diary.

We see Talese meet with his New Yorker editor Susan Morrison, and it’s telling that Talese, defending his fan/source, calls the guy “not creepy” and, in solidarity with Foos, is quick to call journalism a form of voyeurism, while Morrison, to the directors’ camera later, refers to Foos as a “disturbed sociopath.” But both agree: A good story’s a good story.

Talese and Foos are even a compelling matchup on camera: Foos has Wilford Brimley’s voice and the horn-rimmed, immaculately bearded, overweight mien of a suspicious uncle or a Scorsese extra. Talese, meanwhile, is a bon vivant from a lost urban age, never not in exquisitely tailored suits, and usually scarved and fedora-ed to boot. (Later, we learn the eccentric fact that when visiting Foos and his wife Anita, Talese insists they dress up for him.)

It’s in the magazine’s vigorous fact-checking process that Morrison’s worry about Foos being Talese’s only source of information is proven: dates don’t pan out, certain stories can’t be verified, and soon we see Talese’s anger in the contours of a great profile slipping away from him. His credibility takes a further hit after the book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” is published, and the discrepancies (some of which would have been found by a phone call) mount.

For any student of journalism who harbored skepticism that the game-changing trend in non-fiction that read like breathless fiction — started by the likes of Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion (the subject of another Netflix doc this year) — was more than a little compromised by an emphasis on soaring prose over verified truth, “Voyeur” will result in a few eye-rolls over Talese’s methods, and little sympathy when he barks, “I was lied to!” (Really? By a guy who secretly invaded the privacy of fornicating couples? Shocking.)

As for Foos, his early clubby smugness in befriending Talese over his compulsion gives way to unforeseen, table-turning paranoia when he becomes a minor celebrity and balks at how he’s portrayed. Kane and Koury nail one hyper-ironic image: Foos’s worried wife peering out the louvers of their home, the watchers now the watched. But like many fame-dazzled, Foos’s anger at Talese is swept away when he makes a reassuring visit and brings roses. “Voyeur” is, after all, ultimately about courtship, the kind that ends in a tell-all that reveals as much about the teller as the tell-ee.