NOTE: This spoiler sent in by F.J.
The film starts in New York City during the 1970s with Clifford Irving (Richard Gere), standing on the roof of the headquarters of McGraw-Hill, a leading publishing company, surrounded by a handful of their executives. The situation appears frantic with people pacing back and forth on the roof. The building is a skyscraper and we get dizzying views of New York's skyline against a cloudy sky. We hear the executives anxiously shouting "where is he?" and "is he coming or not?" In a few moments, we start to hear the blades of a helicopter. Everyone on the roof looks up to see where the sound is coming from. The people on the roof finally see the helicopter coming in from the distance heading in their direction. We see a perspective, above the helicopter, coming in to land but we do not get to see who is inside. Everyone starts to get excited and shouting, "he's here!" The helicopter starts to make it's descent to land on the roof. Clifford looks up at the helicopter, starts smiling and quietly says to himself "he keeps his promises."
The film then shifts to several months earlier where we see Clifford at the main offices of McGraw-Hill trying to sell his most recent book that is a fictional tale regarding a mystical world. An executive at the company, Andrea Tate (played by Hope Davis), tells him that she is going to do her best to shop the book around. She doesn't make any promises but says that she'll do her best to help him out. She asks him to attend a party later so that they can discuss the results of her attempts. After visiting with McGraw-Hill, Clifford goes home to his wife, Edith, where we find out that their house is being foreclosed. A moving company is even taking out their furniture. Clifford and his wife act lovingly toward one another and state that they will be okay. At the house, we also meet Dick Suskind, Clifford's best friend who also happens to be a writer. Dick appears to be the polar opposite to Clifford in terms of personality, with Clifford being cool, calm and collected and Dick being awkward, goofy and uptight.
Later on that night, Clifford goes to the industry party where he meets up with Andrea from McGraw-Hill. While waiting for Andrea, Clifford exchanges glances with a woman and they seem to know each other. Clifford appears conflicted as to going up to her or not, maybe because the woman is being accompanied by another man. He decides not to pursue this woman. He finally finds Andrea and she does not appear to have good news. Andrea tells him that his book was not accepted and that he should forget it and move on to something else. There is nothing she can do for him. It is apparent that he does not have anything else to fall back on. Naturally, he is severely disappointed and becomes angry and storms out of the party.
The next couple of days or so, he takes a vacation with Dick to the Bahamas. They take a small prop plan over there and they state to each other that the trip is to get Clifford's mind off the current situation. Once at the hotel, they have a few drinks at the bar and talk about what they plan to do next and it is apparent that they have nothing promising going on. Dick appears to be tipsy and stumbles a bit. He complains of not having enough money and Clifford says he'll pay for the drinks. Dick says no but Clifford is adamant on paying. Dick doesn't put up a fight and lets Clifford pay. Clifford intriguingly notices on the bill that Hughes Industries owns the hotel.
Back in their hotel rooms, they are woken up by hotel security who tells them the hotel is closing for the night and they need to stay somewhere else for the night. Clifford is miffed and instantly realizes that Hughes is kicking everyone out so that he can stay the night. He complains to security that is it ridiculous that they are being kicked out but his cries fall on deaf ears. Later on that night, at their shabbier hotel, Clifford can see the hotel they were staying at from the distance with one light on in the whole place with a shadowy figure walking back and forth in the window. It is supposed to represent Howard Hughes alone with the whole hotel complex to himself. Clifford stays up that night and seems to be mesmerized by how powerful, rich and crazy Hughes is.
Back in New York, a desperate Clifford goes back to McGraw Hill and demands to meet with someone. The secretary tries to deflect his approach but he ignores her and storms into a boardroom meeting Andrea is having with some other executives. He maneuvers his way around the people sitting at the table and gets within a few feet of Andrea. The first thing out of his mouth is, "I am working on the most important book of the century. You are going to need to meet with me." He appears and sounds very serious. She hesitantly agrees even though she is quite dumbfounded by his approach and rudeness. He tries to get couple of more words in but security is there to remove him.
Back home, he meets with Dick and his wife. It is shown that his wife is an artist. Her feelings toward Dick seemed to be loving with some trepidation. He expresses his fear of the situation he put himself in at McGraw-Hill. She appears annoyed and states that "she doesn't have time for his problems." After Dick and Edith hear that he doesn't really have a plan, they kind of ignore him and tell him that he'll think of something eventually. Dick wonders why he said "'book of the century,' couldn't you have said of the decade?" It appears that Clifford doesn't even know what his "most important book" was going to be about. Serendipitously, he notices a piece of newspaper that is stuck to the bottom of his shoe from his wife's paint. When he rips off the paper, it has a picture of Howard Hughes on it. His face lights up and he realizes that he has his story. He calls for Dick to get ready to write something down. Dick doesn't seem to really question Clifford's choice and appears to be willing and able.
They start with a copy of an article that showed Howard Hughes' writing style. Using that copy they forge a detailed letter that claims that Howard Hughes wants Clifford Irving to write his autobiography. They bring the hand written letter to McGraw-Hill who are rightfully skeptical. Yet the letter passes an expert forgery test and they all fall for the con. Clifford seems internally surprised when he hears this and it only seems to fuel the fire and raise the excitement. Clifford lies to them that he spoke to Mr. Hughes a couple of times over the phone. Clifford also claims that he doesn't know why he chose him. He suggests that Mr. Hughes may have liked something that he wrote a couple of years ago. To keep the con going, Clifford states that Mr. Hughes instructed him that Clifford would be the only one in contact with the media and that Mr. Hughes would make decisions indirectly through him. Of course, Clifford wants to control the situation as much as possible and make it look like Howard Hughes was running it. During his "pitch" Clifford is very smooth and convincing.
Over a short amount of time, we see the situation starting to build frenzy at McGraw-Hill. Even the executives at McGraw-Hill start claiming that this book "will sell more copies than the Bible." The head executives at McGraw-Hill totally fall for the con after a couple of more meetings with Clifford and offer several hundred thousand dollars to Hughes and Clifford, to be split something like 80/20. Back home, Clifford and Dick celebrate and Dick doesn't realize that all the money really goes to them. Clifford buys a couple of nice things for his wife and celebrates with her too. She seems to be okay with it being fraudulent money.
Now Clifford and Dick get to work writing the book. They start with research. They go to a National library and take illegal pictures of documents pertaining to Howard Hughes. Clifford uses his coat to block Dick taking pictures of the book. Back home, they realize that Dick humorously messed up and took blurry pictures. This doesn't seem to stop them. They are basically trying to get as much information as possible about Mr. Hughes by any means necessary.
Later on they go to a lock-down file room at another federal library and they have a conversation with the guard. Clifford realizes that the file room they want is right behind the guard and asks the guard if Dick can use the bathroom. Dick seems confused by this, gets up and realizes the impromptu plan. The guard doesn’t quite pick up that something fishy is going here. Dick sneaks into the room and pulls out the file while Clifford keeps the guard’s attention. He looks around the room to figure out how to sneak it out. Clifford can see this from his angle and he pushes his shirt down his pants repeatedly at the waist to signal to Dick to put the file down his pants. Dick picks up this clue and puts the file down his pants. Before leaving they get frisked and Dick adroitly shifts the file in his pants during the pat-down. He narrowly escapes security and they leave successfully.
Clifford and Dick now are using a room at Clifford's house as a base of operations. The walls are full of info and pictures of Mr. Hughes like a police detail of a criminal. Their primary way of getting down the info is Clifford speaking into a microphone as if Mr. Hughes is giving an interview with Dick typing later on after fleshing out the text. Clifford dresses himself like Mr. Hughes and even speaks in a different accent which is supposed to imitate Mr. Hughes. The book seems to be moving along nicely.
They also meet an estranged Hughes associate who wrote his own memoir of Mr. Hughes and some conflict he had with President Nixon. They claim to be interested in the airplane business but are using this man’s work for more juicy info. The man does not want them to leave with the documents, so Clifford and Dick pretend to read it in a separate room while Dick sneaks out behind the man's back with the documents. He drives all the way to an office and photocopies the many pages one by one. Back at the man's home, Dick narrowly sneaks the documents back in. Before they leave, they tell him that the memoirs are garbage and he should be ashamed for writing so poorly. This was obviously a ploy to keep the man quiet and not interfere with their objectives. Andrea calls Clifford and Dick answers. Dick is a mess over the phone much to Clifford’s chagrin. Dick tells Andrea that he’s Clifford’s accomplice and owns half the book. Andrea is flabbergasted and asks to speak with Clifford. Clifford explains to Andrea that Dick is harmless to the book deal and is sorry that he never mentioned him to McGraw-Hill.
Clifford and Dick meet with some executives at McGraw-Hill’s headquarters and Dick is really nervous. Dick blurts out that Mr. Hughes gave him a prune in the Bahamas. One of the executive tells Dick to explain. Realizing that he may be incriminating himself, Clifford takes this as an opportunity to sounds more convincing by explaining to the group of executives that Hughes flew Clifford and Dick on his private jet to the Bahamas. Clifford makes it sound as if the two of them were part of a secret mission and that when they finally got to Mr. Hughes; Clifford described him looking very mysterious, with long hair and a long beard. Clifford claimed that Mr. Hughes did not speak to them at first and only offered them a prune, which they said was very tasty. The film represents this lie by Clifford's voice overheard while the film shows us his original trip to the Bahamas with parts changed for his audience at hand.
When back at the home base, Clifford and Dick receive a mysterious package addressed from the Bahamas that contains important information on Howard Hughes. They deduce that even though they have never spoken with Mr. Hughes, he is helping them for reason they don't really know.
Clifford and Dick meet with some executives over dinner to discuss the book. Dick is a nervous wreck again and it shows. They get asked several questions about Mr. Hughes and Clifford answers the questions very calmly and convincingly. Dick blurts out random sentences, as if he has Tourrette’s, which make everyone very uncomfortable at the table. In order to keep myself from talking, Dick keeps drinking water, as if he is parched. They get asked a specific question about Mr. Hughes and his behavior. Clifford sees that Dick may be able to answer this one and lets Dick answer. Dick manages to lie to them very effectively, possibly because he read so much about Mr. Hughes that is sounds natural. Dick answering the question seems to qualm the nervousness of the executives.
Several conflicts come up soon after. Another writer (another fraud) claims to be writing the book and Mr. Hughes starts denying to the press that he has not spoken to anyone about a book. They realize that that their con may be falling apart and that they should return the money so that they don’t go to jail. Problem is they have already spent the money.
In stead of confessing, they fly to the Bahamas and mail a fake returned check under Hughes name with a hand-written letter stating that Hughes refuses to continue unless he is paid a proper sum. Clifford is back at McGraw-Hill headquarters and states that they are at Hughes’ mercy. They ask what he wants in return and he makes the ridiculous request of 1 million dollars or they walk. The executives, with Stanley Tucci as the Chairman of McGraw Hill laugh him off. Clifford starts to walk out of the room but they stop him and give him the check for 1 million dollars. This all happens despite the rumor that it's all a fake. The head exec (Tucci) meets with Clifford and Dick tells threatens them that if anything is false he will prosecute them to the full extent of the law.
The whole check is written for Howard Hughes and since they can’t get around to faking that, they lie that Hughes wants the check to be written for H. Hughes. Changing the check to H. Hughes allows room to fake a name. They get Clifford’s wife a fake I.D. with the name Helga Hughes. Around this time, Clifford has an affair with the woman that he saw earlier at the party. Through conversation we find out that she is married and that they had an affair in the past. Edith had found out about the old affair. Through a mysterious phone call, Edith deduces that they are still having an affair and gets very angry. This makes her relationship with Clifford very strained. Clifford and Dick have her fly to Switzerland to open up an account so she can secretly cash the check. She appears to hate Clifford and would run off with the money if she could. This represented the more self-destructive side to Clifford.
Clifford and Dick are finally towards the end of writing the book. Clifford then one night gets visited by mysterious men who kidnap him and fly him to the Bahamas. They tie him up and end up telling him that Mr. Hughes wants Clifford to include confidential information that could get President Nixon in trouble. Clifford tries to put it in the book but gets denied by McGraw-Hill. Dick later tells Clifford that he wasn’t "kidnapped" and that he was only drunk.
As the release day gets closer, McGraw-Hill is getting nervous because Mr. Hughes has basically denied any involvement through the media. So Clifford and Dick devise a trick to buy them time. They tell everyone at McGraw Hill-Hill that Mr. Hughes will be visiting the headquarters in the next couple of days. They state that Hughes wants to clear the top couple of floors and repaint all the walls, remove all the carpet, disinfect all the doorknobs, etc... They follow every single step. The day of Hughes’ arrival is here and we find Clifford, Andrea and a couple of other waiting on the roof. We see the helicopter from the opening coming in. Clifford sneakily changes a couple of details on of the landing diagram note on an intern’s pad at the last minute. The helicopter appears to stall a few feet above the roof where a landing diagram has been drawn similar to the one on the intern’s note. Some on the roof wonder out loud, “what is he doing?” The helicopter then abruptly turns
the other way before landing and flies off. We get a view inside the helicopter as it flies off and see that Dick was inside the helicopter instructing the pilot. The ploy was to bring Mr. Hughes as close as possible but leaves everyone confused. Clifford blames it on one of the interns messing up the diagram when it was really Clifford that did it.
At the same time, the executives are reading the finished product and they all love it. One of the execs says, "It has to be real." Everyone is ecstatic. This is all until the real Mr. Hughes finally calls in to McGraw-Hill and denies everything. One of the execs states that Mr. Hughes may be playing with them and Clifford runs with that lie. The Chairman decides to publish the book even if it may be fraudulent because it is so good. What’s the difference, the public does not know that it may be a sham. Clifford also lies to his wife that he didn't have another affair. The film shows this lie through Clifford's altered reality again. He states to her that he only visited the mistress and realized that he was doing wrong. His wife forgives him.
The book gets published and it is on everyone’s mind. At this time, Clifford and Dick's relationship becomes strained because Clifford paid some girl to have sex with Dick one night, which Dick found out later when he ran into the girl again. They argue and appear not be to talking to each other. Clifford doesn’t really seem heart broken over it.
A couple of days later, Howard Hughes calls in on a live TV show and says that the book is a total charade and has never met Clifford Irving. Clifford was watching TV at the time at party and it is the first time we see him shaken. He’s so stunned that he spills his drink and tumbles over some furniture. I guess he realizes that there is no lie to get him out of this one. He is driving home visibly distressed and hears on the radio that his wife was arrested because of a fake ID presented at the Swiss bank. He freaks out. The whole plan fell apart.
We next see Clifford walking out of the courthouse with media overheard in the background stating that Clifford Irving has disgraced the writing profession and has played McGraw-Hill for fools. When Clifford get to the police car waiting for him outside of the courthouse he spells the word "hoax" in the mist on the window on the police car. McGraw Hill ends up burning the rest of the books. Fade to black.
We see that Clifford and his wife get sent to jail for a year and a half at least. They end up getting a divorce. Dick gets in trouble but with lesser charges. Dick goes on to write children's books. When Clifford gets out, they run into each other and Dick simply ignores him.
We see Clifford at home speaking with one of the figures that "kidnapped" him earlier in the movie. They are sitting back to back. He tells the figure, it would have worked. The figure listens as Clifford states that Howard Hughes used the opportunity of Clifford writing the book to spill the beans of the President. Clifford claims that Hughes needed a fall-guy and Clifford offered a perfect opportunity. Clifford believes that the President found out and it caused his office to try to get dirt on the Democrats and hence getting caught at Watergate. The figure disappears and we see that the person was a figment of Clifford’s imagination.
We find out that Clifford is still alive and still trying to write a book on Howard Hughes.
After Clifford Irving's publisher declines to publish his latest book, Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) decides to fake a book about Howard Hughes using forged letters to convince the publisher. Irving's colleague David Susskind (Alfred Molina) does some great research and everyone is fooled.
Irving is also helped by a mysterious package from Nevada that has files about Hughes giving illegal money to Nixon. The con unravels and is destroyed by a teleconference by Hughes denying he knows Irving.
As a result of Hughes denying the book, he receives help from the White House regarding a legal issue about one of his airlines. Irving gets a 2 1/2 year sentence and Susskind gets 6 months.
The book also fuels Nixon's paranoia and contributed to the Watergate break-in.