Film Reviews: Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Writer of Wrongs

Few movies are as sharp \r\nas Shattered Glass, the story \r\nof a journalist gone bad.


The reviews for Shattered Glass have it wrong. Not in their praise — this brainy, absorbing piece of work is one of the year’s best films and deserves its accolades. But the reviews have described it as a great movie about journalism. It’s much more than that. The film’s main character is a liar whose mendacity is fueled by ambition and a pathetic desire for popularity. These traits are hardly confined to sleazy journalists. If you work in an office, you probably know a Stephen Glass. If you’re unlucky, he’s your friend.

Stephen Glass was a staff writer for The New Republic who was discovered in 1998 to have fabricated dozens of stories that the prestigious magazine had printed as fact. The scale of his deception was impressive — he wrote about people and organizations invented out of whole cloth, forged his own notes, created a fake web site, sent himself e-mail from phony addresses, and had people impersonate sources to his editors. The New York Times’ Jayson Blair wasn’t nearly as resourceful. The movie uses an ingenious framing device to tell the story, with Glass (Hayden Christensen) returning to his high school and recounting his remarkable career to a class of bright-eyed students, even while his peers in Washington are about to expose him.

The movie never gets inside Glass’ head, but it doesn’t have to. His motives are pretty evident, as we see his colleagues, bosses, and the likes of Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and the now-defunct George all treating him like a golden boy because of his bogus stories. Instead of psychoanalyzing him, the film ruthlessly dissects this con artist’s methods. He charms everyone with his bespectacled good looks and his puppy-dog enthusiasm. He remembers people’s birthdays and offers to help on their articles. He cultivates the air of a wunderkind and brims with false modesty, pitching brilliant story ideas at meetings and then trashing them only after they’ve thoroughly won everyone over. He adopts the pose of a sensitive soul — one of his running lines is “Are you mad at me?”, asked in a wounded tone when people raise questions about his work. As his stories unravel, he backpedals, apologizes, all but beats his chest in public displays of remorse. Long before he’s cornered, he plays the martyr to his editor Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), saying, “If you want me to go out there and say that I made it all up, I will.” Meanwhile, he rallies his co-workers to his defense by telling them the evil boss is gunning for him, a task made easier by their loyalty to Lane’s inspirational predecessor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) and their perception of Lane as an interloper and a stiff.

As Glass, Christensen’s eyes take in everything and reveal nothing; he’s The Talented Mr. Ripley minus the sexual confusion. The character’s classroom speech setting himself up as a journalist who nobly shuns self-promotion is a crock, yet the actor delivers the b.s. so smoothly that you smile anyway. His performance creates an uncanny presence. It’s as if Glass is standing in front of you, offering you his flattery and excuses. If you saw Christensen in the last Star Wars movie and concluded that he couldn’t act, this performance will give you major pause.

Making his directing debut is Billy Ray, whose undistinguished screenwriting résumé (Hart’s War, Volcano) doesn’t hint at what he does here. He directs in a low-key, economical style, giving the story prominence over the telling of it. Occasionally, he betrays his inexperience — a showdown between Lane and Glass’ staunchest defender in the newsroom (Chloë Sevigny) peaks too early. These, however, are tiny blemishes. Ray lays out this complex story simply and clearly, and the scenes in which Lane and Forbes online journalist Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) gradually uncover Glass’ lies play like a first-rate detective story. Ray also brings Glass’ fictions to life in flashbacks that show the reporter on the scene, scribbling dutifully in his notebook as drunken young Republicans roam the halls of their hotel, humiliating unattractive women. He’s there too when a fictional 15-year-old hacker brings a major software firm to heel and receives a hero’s welcome from his fellow computer geeks. You want these stories to be true because they’re so good, and you can see how Glass created and played on the same feeling in his peers.

Ray assembles a strong cast and, more importantly, doesn’t waste a single one of them. They draw sharply delineated portraits of corporate types, from Melanie Lynskey as a New Republic writer who’s sadly envious of Glass’ scoops, to Rosario Dawson as a shark trying to swoop in on Penenberg’s exposé. Sarsgaard stands out as the appropriately unforgiving Lane; his lack of charisma works in his favor and plays as integrity in this context.

It’s tempting to see the whole Glass affair as having to do with the triumph of entertainment value over newsworthiness in journalism, but if Ray settled for that, his movie would be of interest only to journalists. Instead, Shattered Glass focuses on the work of a single clever fraud and becomes something more powerful. This morally acute and improbably entertaining film demonstrates that Stephen Glass is everywhere and shows the best way to recognize and deal with him.

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