Written and directed by Billy Ray
From an article by H.G. Bissinger
Cinematography by Mandy Walker
Starring Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Screened 12/05/03 on DVD
It's been a good year for bogus journalism. Sure, there was a predictable outcry when Jayson Blair, the notorious fabulist who had faked stories for The New York Times by pretending to travel to places he had never been and to speak with people he had never met, was assigned by Esquire to write a review of a film about Stephen Glass, the notorious fabulist who had faked stories for The New Republic by — well, by simply fabricating them from whole cloth. But mustn't it have been gratifying, on some level, for an attention-monger on Glass's scale to receive yet another round of attention? He's played in a film by Hayden Christensen, for Christ's sake. He's Darth Vader. If you're going to be reviled by your peers and depicted on film as disturbed and pathologically needy, a man of no professional honor whatsoever, isn't it the highest compliment that the go-to guy for said portrayal is the scourge of the fucking universe?
Glass went incognito for a few long years, but he's back in the public eye this year, with not only the release of Shattered Glass, but also the publication of a book, appropriately titled The Fabulist, that loosely fictionalizes his exploits. The movie is a next-century version of All the President's Men, in which the values of enterprise reporters who took inspiration from the noble Woodward and Bernstein are subject to corruption. The suggestion is not just that more rigorous editorial oversight could have caught Glass in his lies before his stories made it to press, but that there's a competitive culture among young reporters that encourages self-promotion and breeds a type of egocentrism that's not just unflattering to the profession, but potentially destructive. In writer/director Billy Ray's film, Glass is a star at his magazine not just because he writes compelling stories, but because he dominates story meetings and generates a type of newsroom loyalty that has his co-workers backing him up and helping him out. He makes suckers of them. Christensen isn't exactly an Oscar-caliber performer, but this is a good role for him precisely because there's something uneasy about his actions on screen. Without really nailing the character, Christensen manages to convey a simultaneous charisma and awkwardness that speaks to Glass's ability to come off as a rising star — his colleagues pay jealous attention to any hint that he's talking to editors at more mainstream publications — while perpetrating a snow job of colossal proportions.
The film is an interesting directorial debut for screenwriter Billy Ray, who frames the picture largely as a narrative taking place in Glass's head, as he imagines himself addressing a classroom full of attentive J-school students, including the pretty girl who knows his work by heart and the doting teacher who describes herself as his muse. By the last scene, the narrative has split and diverged, with Glass's undignified ouster from the magazine set in stark contrast to his imagined adoration. The upshot is that unpopular new-guy editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) is finally seen to earn the respect that Glass craved as a function of bringing him down. And because Lane replaced Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), an editor whose tendency to trust his reporters was exploited by Glass, there's an open question about the implied arrogance and insularity of The New Republic's brand of old-school journalism that goes beyond the particulars of just that magazine. As depicted here, Kelly steadfastly resisted a redesign that would have made room for pictures to go with the mag's gray text — images that themselves would have served as a check against the publication of Glass-style fiction.
The inside-baseball stuff about interoffice relationships, copy editing, and the holes inherent in the fact-checking process works as narrative because its picture of office politics is detailed and credibly performed. Glass is backed up by his best buddies at the magazine, portrayed by Chloe Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey, who look to him as a role model even as they try to protect him. They don't realize until the last possible minute that they've been taken. (But the two of them together in a newsroom is some kind of editorial fantasy, for sure. More roles for Lynskey, please.) Sarsgaard's portrayal shares with Christensen's a certain awkwardness, but he evinces none of the same vulnerability. He's aware that he's not well liked, but he's determined to be tough and fair. And Steve Zahn is quite good as the dogged beat reporter at Forbes Digital, at first irritated at the story he missed, then incredulous at the scope of the fraud that he uncovers.
Blair never got to write his Esquire review of Shattered
Glass. The assignment was canceled owing to general outrage in
the journalism community that these guys get so much ink spilled over
them — let alone that anyone would actually pay them to continue
writing, even as a joke. Speaking of jokes, a title card at the very
end of Shattered Glass informs audiences that Glass has graduated
from Georgetown Law School. At just over 90 minutes, this may qualify
as the longest lawyer joke in history.