Shattered Glass

November, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Billy Ray

Starring:Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, and Steve Zahn

Fall has traditionally been the graveyard of movie release dates, wedged in between the summer blockbusters and Holiday Oscar-contenders; does that account for the timing behind this modest but compelling story of journalistic integrity? Whatever the motivations of its distributor, Lions Gate Films provides here a worthy pre-Thanksgiving film, made all the more memorable because the events it depicts happen to be true.

Writer/director Billy Ray, working from an article by Buss Bissinger, mesmerizes with his examination of the 1998 scandal at The New Republic which resulted in the magazine's public humiliation for a string of falsified articles written by Stephen Glass, one of its reporters. Hayden Christensen, (Star Wars, My Life As a House) portrays Glass, an eager-to-please 20-something nebbish who rose quickly through the ranks of the editorial department to become a star feature writer, an accomplishment based largely on his ability to develop and create personal interest stories that captured the imagination of the magazine's small but sophisticated readership. 

Strongly supported by senior editor Michael Kelly, (Hank Azaria) Glass enthralls his co-workers with a mixture of genuinely clever material and a disturbing combination of fawning attention and personal vulnerability. Women want to mother him; Kelly, clearly a father figure, basks in his puppy-like adoration. Working long hours at the magazine and attending law school at night to please his demanding parents, Glass outwardly appears to be yet another brilliant writing talent in the early stages of an extraordinary career, an upper class, East Coast version of The New York Times' Ricky Scaggs. But small discrepancies in some of his Glass' more unique pieces and a growing rivalry with dour fellow reporter Chuck Lane, (Peter Sarsgarrd) point toward a conflicted talent tottering on the edge of melt-down. 

Michael Peretz, New Republic's Steinbrennerian publisher, unexpectedly dumps Kelly as editor and asks the stolid Lane to replace him. While simultaneously back-biting and ass-kissing his new boss, Glass writes a fantastic story about a hackers convention that culminates in an especially vivid description of a giant internet corporation that pays off a young geek so he'll stop breaching their computer security programs. A rival on-line news service pounces on the article, initiating an exhaustive investigation of the events Glass has reported; the film then traces the disintegration of his carefully constructed world. As his life unwinds, Glass appears unwilling--or unable--to consider the consequences. His mounting paranoia fuels increasingly desperate attempts to bury small untruths with ever-larger ones, steadily raising the stakes for his own career and demonstrating that the biggest lie is always the most dangerous one, since it possesses the power to irreparably damage loyal colleagues who simply refused to believe him capable of doing what Lane suspects.

Sarsgarrd, a 33 yr-old actor with extensive stage and screen credits (Dead Man Walking, Boys Don't Cry, The Salton Sea) plays Lane with a quiet blend of stoicism and intellectual gravity that counter-balances the charming but conniving Glass. The younger Christensen embodies a character so insecure that his constant need for praise and reassurance render his early deviations from the truth both believable and forgivable; but as they grow in size and malignancy, the actor grows ever more ominous right along with them, raising the stakes of his performance in parallel with the anxieties of the audience, who come to realize the disquieting fact that he may not honestly know just what he's capable of. 

 The process by which the contenders unfold their game of journalistic cat-and-mouse plays out like a well-crafted murder mystery; clues emerge, credulous supporters reject increasingly aggressive opponents while the magazine's reputation hangs in the balance. But film's real strength lies in the tension generated between its ingratiating deceiver and his stoic but honorable editor/adversary. Christensen's gushing young hustler morphs from cute to pitiful to frightening as the investigation of his work progresses; it becomes increasingly apparent that he's perfectly willing to destroy others in order to sustain his personal charade. Christensen's pitch-perfect transformation from eager beaver to sinister threat provides the perfect counterpoint to Sarsgaard's transition from self-effacing employee to courageous leader; his innate integrity becomes the only effective means of uncovering the truth in the face of Glass's malignant but brilliant manipulation of the circumstances. That so many of Glass' fellow writers supported him until the very end of the process makes the loneliness of Lane's position all the more convincing, and Sarsgaard's interpretation of a man acutely aware of his responsibilities to both his profession and the magazine's readership are embedded in his reserved but compelling performance. 

The film isn't perfect; a number of supporting roles aren't particularly well written, the final scene becomes a bit too self-congratulatory and the cinematography is perfunctory at best. But as Christensen and Sarsgaard circle each other warily and lock horns, the movie gains both momentum and importance as it presents a compelling case for the importance of journalistic integrity and its fragile condition in the hands of the unscrupulous. 

Shattered Glass doesn't grab you by the throat and demand attention--it sneaks up on its audience, nibbling at one of most fundamental presuppositions in a free society, (the importance of accuracy in the media) by demonstrating just how vigilant the profession must be in sustaining it. 

The verdict? Ninety-five minutes of first-rate film-making about third-rate journalism.     

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus