Gerald Foos, left, and Gay Talese in Voyeur (Film Society of Lincoln Center)

Former motel owner Gerald Foos doesn’t think of himself as a peeping tom or a pervert, though he does concede that some would call him that. He considers himself a sex researcher along the lines of Alfred Kinsey. In the 1960s, he built an elaborate observation deck in the attic above the rooms of his Colorado motel, where he observed the guests through ceiling vents and copiously noted their activities for more than two decades. His first and second wives “were cooperative,” according to him—the first brought him sandwiches as he spied on guests.

Gay Talese, the New York–based avatar of New Journalism, conducted research and immersed himself in the sexual revolution for his 1981 book, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. His numerous media appearances touting the bestseller brought him to Foos’s attention, and the motel owner contacted the journalist and shared his story. They corresponded sporadically for years before Talese convinced Foos to come out in the open and become the subject of a 2016 article in The New Yorker and then a full-length book. Talese visited Foos in Colorado, even going to the Manor Inn’s attic to see for himself, nearly getting him and Foos caught when his fancy tie dangled through a vent into a room occupied by a copulating couple.

Thus began the power game of subject and reporter, with the unprepossessing Foos spinning ever more wild stories of his exploits and Talese contending with a slippery subject, his journalistic desire for a good scoop, and skeptical but interested New York editors, one of whom calls Foos a sociopath. When Foos claims he witnessed a murder and “may even be an accessory” and Talese cannot find proof of a death in that time frame, relations between them become strained.

They’re stretched even more after the book is published. Foos and his wife Anita are harassed by outraged locals, and Foos feels betrayed when Talese writes of his supposedly valuable collections (baseball cards, cereal boxes, coins). Meanwhile, a Washington Post fact checker finds some serious faults in Foos’s narrative, Talese, thus, “disavows” the book after Foos’s misrepresentations are revealed, lamenting that his career is “in the toilet.”

Co-directors Josh Koury and Myles Kane work with this rich material marvelously, juxtaposing the two men’s lifestyles, quite different on the surface but more similar deep down than either man would like to admit. They expose layers of the men, both now octogenarians. Foos’s initial God talk and biblical references give way to profanity-laced diatribes, and Talese lashes out at the filmmakers for priming Foos off-camera.

Re-creations of the motel scenes (no video cameras back then) and use of a model for the now-demolished Manor Inn are skillful. Anita, who at first appears to be a dumbstruck former Kewpie doll, comes to life as Foos rants about Talese. When he complains that now people will think he’s “a creep,” she shyly says, “Well, you are.” Talese’s wife, Nan, also appears briefly, describing how she tried to protect their daughters from the media glare when Talese’s sexcapades were on the news.

The documentary’s soundtrack feels generic at times, but that works nicely with Foos’s seemingly bland exterior and Talese’s elegance, though a few shaky camera shots are distracting. Clips of Talese on The Phil Donohue Show and in action as a jet-setting journalist, always splendidly dressed and on the make, eloquently convey his personality and history.

This sly, labyrinthine film is the definition of docudrama. With plot twists aplenty, an unreliable narrator, and friendly adversaries from different worlds, it’s an unsettling but thrilling exploration. And it couldn’t be timelier in this era of fake news and sexual misconduct.

Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury
Released by Netflix
USA. 96 min. Not rated