Directed by Billy Ray. Starring Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey, Steve Zahn, Hank Azaria, Rosario Dawson, Luke Kirby. (2003, PG-13, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 21, 2003
Before Jayson Blair’s name became synonymous with the public disgrace of The New York Times, there was Stephen Glass, a staff reporter at the policy and current events magazine The New Republic, who also freelanced for publications such as George, Harper’s, and Rolling Stone. By the time it was discovered that Glass was a serial fabricator of facts and, sometimes, whole stories (accompanied by a tangled trail of phony business cards, Web sites, and notes corroborating his invented information), Glass and his editors were held responsible for printing dozens of stories that were rife with untruths, half-truths, and outright lies – if, indeed, it is possible to make distinctions among degrees of truth. For Stephen Glass – at least the Stephen Glass portrayed in this movie, which is based on a 1998 Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger and not any of the accounts published by those directly involved – it was possible to make distinctions about a journalist’s honesty. His mantra in the movie is that journalism is all about the art of capturing behavior and, apparently, need not have actually happened in order to ring true. We see ample evidence of how this was able to happen at The New Republic. Glass is always a big hit at the staff meetings, pitching his stories with all the color and enthusiasm of a born storyteller, "re-enacting" key moments and gaining further strength from the laughter and popular support of his entranced colleagues. Some of Glass’ pathological behavior surely has to stem from the simple impulse to "give the people what they want." And just as surely, some of the responsibility for missing the signs and clues regarding Glass’ compulsive fabrications belongs to all the editors and readers whose innate complacency allows them to hear what they want to hear and siphon out the rest. As Glass, Christensen will be a revelation to those who only know him as Anakin Skywalker, here delivering a finely nuanced performance devoid of intergalactic heroics and manly stoicism. His Glass is a gawky big kid, eager to please and anxious to achieve. Emblematic of modern youth? Not really; Glass’ behavior is too idiosyncratic and pathological to be mistaken as anything but individualistic. The character is always asking, "Are you mad at me? Did I do something wrong?" The movie is good at showing Glass’ pleasantly ingratiating tactics with his fellow workers and how his colleagues bent over backward to help him, and only in retrospect saw how they were, in fact, covering up for him. And for magazine junkies, Shattered Glass provides a fascinating look behind the scenes at The New Republic and the production process through which a magazine is pieced together. Yet, viewers may also recoil from the movie’s reverential and elitist treatment of The New Republic ("the in-flight magazine of Air Force One," we are told repeatedly) and other news operations. The esteem accorded them by the movie makes it seem as though members of the press belong to the first rather than the fourth estate. Shattered Glass uses a wraparound story to provide a hint of Glass’ deep-seated pathology, but allows no details about how it came into being. In an afterward, the filmmakers tell us that Glass has gone on to become a lawyer, thereby using the sorry reputation of the legal profession to make the case that Glass’ disregard for the truth will continue unabated while the noble profession of journalism remains untarnished. It all serves as a reminder that you can never implicitly believe what you read – or see.