Glass Half Full
Infamous Fabulist Stephen Glass Himself Becomes a Caricature in Shattered Glass
It says a lot about the estimation of journalists these days that a night's entertainment can be framed around watching a reporter twist on the hook. Americans no doubt have plenty of reason to resent the media, as one respected byline after another has been fouled in recent years--from the creative liberties of Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith to the New York Times' worst-case scenario of Jayson Blair. For all of the pent-up anger that those frauds have caused, Shattered Glass is here to serve as a kind of group therapy.
The new film by Billy Ray (in his directorial debut) traces the hyperbolic arc of New Republic writer Stephen Glass, who in 1998 was revealed to have fabricated, in part or in full, more than half of the 41 features he wrote for the magazine. In its execution, Shattered Glass is a captivating drama, playing out like a journalistic game of gotcha, with colleagues and competitors alike stockpiling their suspicions about Glass, meticulously investigating his work, and eventually exposing him. But in its intentionally shallow portrayal of the troubled young writer, the film also functions as a sort of effigy burning, a ritual by which we're given a villain as cartoonishly malicious as he is pathetically weak, whose failings we're invited to hate openly, and whose downfall makes for a very satisfying resolution indeed. Rather than "treating" Stephen Glass in the vein of more traditional biopics, Shattered Glass flays him like a corpse.
In the newsroom of the film, Glass is a distinct outsider--as young and immature as he is talented and ambitious--and this sense of isolation is cleverly reinforced by the casting. Almost all of the young actors on the roster here boast an impressive indie pedigree: Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures) as Glass' co-worker, Steve Zahn (Happy, Texas) as the online reporter who uncovers his secret, and Chloe Sevigny and Peter Sarsgaard (both of Boys Don't Cry) as his mothering colleague and long-suffering editor, respectively. Yet the title role goes to an actor (Hayden Christensen) who's best known for wrapping his mouth around the platitudes of young Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels.
Maybe this dynamic explains the replete awkwardness that Christensen brings to his role, but he puts it to expert use--wearing an expression perpetually on the verge of panic, skulking around the office as if hoping no one will notice him, and cheeping out lines that reek of defensiveness, even when none is quite called for. "Are you mad at me?" Glass squeaks the first time an editor asks to see his notes. It soon becomes the film's refrain, and Christensen repeats it each time identically, with all of the pathology of the character he's been given.
That character, though, is curiously one-dimensional. As considered by Ray, who wrote as well as directed the film, Stephen Glass is a quivering mass of compunctions without any backstory. He engages in idle flattery around the newsroom, but it's never clear why he feels the need to flatter. He canoodles with his female co-workers, suggesting that he has some kind of missing-mommy complex, but we never learn anything of his personal history. And above all, no answers are ever offered to the question that the film itself so clearly begs: Why would an obviously talented young writer feel the need to fabricate a single article, let alone more than 20 in three years?
Shattered Glass artfully avoids the issue by phrasing itself in terms of how rather than why. The emphasis here is on Glass' undoing, and much of the movie's suspense comes from the race between Forbes online reporter Adam Penenberg (Zahn) and Glass' editor Chuck Lane (Sarsgaard) to get to the bottom of the many flaws in Glass' 1998 article "Hack Heaven," about a supposed wunderkind computer hacker who negotiates a truce with the software company he's been hacking. In turn, each journalist learns the increasingly stupefying lengths to which Glass has gone to cover his tracks, and with each revelation Glass offers more simpering, more stammering, and, ultimately, suicide threats made in obvious vain. Sarsgaard matches Christensen's brio in this game of cat-and-mouse, nursing a simmering rage that grows hotter with each scene. Once Glass' comeuppance is finally served, Sarsgaard manages to turn what could've been the film's corniest line into one of its most poignant. "He gave us fiction after fiction, and we printed them as fact because they were entertaining," Sarsgaard bellows to Sevigny, who lamely comes to Glass' aid. "It's indefensible."
That this climactic line is aimed at the collective "we" of The New Republic and not at Glass himself seems noteworthy. It's the capping sentiment of what is, taken whole, an indictment of the media at large, and no one in the cast escapes its implications. Lynskey and Sevigny's characters, for instance, seem as guilty in the end of coddling Glass as Glass is of manipulating them. Chuck Lane, too, seems like an overly shrewd office politician who yessirs his way into the editor's chair.
But if none of these journalists is too honorable, their combined evils are doubtless embodied in Glass himself. As the anti-hero of Shattered Glass, he is so purely delusional, so without remorse, so prissily prickly that it almost makes sense when, after agreeing to own up to their collective mistakes in a letter to their readers, the staff of The New Republic rises to its feet--literally, around a conference table--and gives itself a round of applause. The beast has been banished from the village. But neither they nor we in the audience understand just where such a monster could come from, and that makes Glass' ruin all the more blindly gratifying.