The name of the film is Shattered Glass. The man whose life we see get shattered is named Stephen Glass. The movie poster shows Stephen Glass with the lens of his glasses shattered. This sets off bells and whistles announcing there's a very earnest movie ahead. Especially since we already know it's about a journalist who betrays his journalistic integrity.
It's funny....when your average dishonest employee steals paper clips from the supply closet or fudges on an expense report, we recognize a bad apple. Or maybe even ourselves. There’s one in every barrel, and we suspect a lot more than just one. But when that bad apple is a journalist, we are often asked to recognize him as the thread that could unravel the very fabric of a free republic. And if filmmakers feel earnest about Stephen Glass embarrassing a small magazine, imagine the hysterical possibilities when someone does the life story of Jayson Blair, whose Glass-like behavior caused the New York Times to cut off its own head last year.
All that being said, Shattered Glass works surprisingly well. Not as a celebration of journalism's noble tendency to right itself, but as a cautionary tale of ambition. Based on a true story the film stays respectfully close to the Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissnger on which it was based. At the age of 24, Stephen Glass was an associate editor for the New Republic, which the film reminds us more than once was dubbed "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One." He was also freelancing for George, Harper's and Rolling Stone. The film lets us see the envy lurking behind the tight smiles of his older colleagues: the kid clearly has the world on a string. At pitch meetings, where other writers serve up story ideas only a policy wonk could love, Glass is on his feet recounting an amazing personal encounter that is not only bursting with color and characters, but neatly encapsulates something bigger in the nation's mood. Then feigning embarrassment, Glass sits back down. Maybe the story isn't worth pursuing, he demurs. But nobody is buying his act. He knows he sold the story. And he knows he's damn good. The problem, of course, is that he's lying. And there's no turning back.
Stephen Glass is brought to life by Hayden Christensen, who throws himself fearlessly into what could be a thankless role. For an actor who was handed the keys to the Star Wars franchise, Christensen could not have chosen a less heroic lead character. We feel sorry for Stephen Glass. But he's also pathetic enough to creep us out. And we ultimately root for his downfall. Christensen walks this tightrope quite brilliantly, and writer/director Billy Ray does a nice job toying with the audience's own perception of fantasy and reality. In the end, Shattered Glass is more about the pathology of one particular liar than the hallowed ground of the Fifth Estate, and that's why the film stayed with me. Christensen is supported by a meaty cast, although Hank Azaria, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson have little to sink their teeth into. Only Peter Sarsgaard has much of a journey, going from Glass's peer to New Republic editor, and finding himself aligned against a staff that thinks he's picking on Glass out of petty office politics.
Oh, and in case you didn't hear, the film reminds us in an epilogue that the real Stephen Glass has just published his first novel...about a journalist who makes up his stories. You gotta love this country.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 11/12/03
US - 2003