Shattered Glass -- a somber, Journalism 101 class of a movie -- is fine in its faithful recreation of the events surrounding the downfall of The New Republic wunderkind reporter Stephen Glass, but lacking in almost anything else. It feels like what it is, a movie based on a magazine article (in this case, Buzz Bissinger's September 1998 report in Vanity Fair). Many critics have called Shattered Glass the best journalism-flavored movie since 1976's All the President's Men, and I'm not sure what that says about journalism or Hollywood over the past quarter century. Watergate, this ain't.
There is much to like about Shattered Glass; it's just that there's not much to discuss. Hayden Christiansen (of Anakin Skywalker fame) is joined by a solid supporting cast featuring Peter Sarsgaard, Hank Azaria, Chloe Sevigny and Steve Zahn in hitting all the right notes as journalists laboring under the burden of telling The Truth to a jaded general public. But in the hands of first-time director Billy Ray, the story feels rather played out.
The story is almost too simple: on a staff of up-and-coming writers, Stephen Glass shined particularly brighter than his twentysomething colleagues in his ability to spin wild yarns both during morning staff meetings and later in the pages of the venerable magazine. He had an eye for unusual stories with colorful people and a self-deprecating charm that endeared him to many, even while making them wonder. And with good reason: Glass faked 17 of the 41 articles he wrote for The New Republic while freelancing for several other prestige mags, including Rolling Stone.
Shattered Glass charts the discovery of this fraud, focusing on the straw that broke the camel's back: a completely fraudulent piece about a young computer hacker. And along the way, the movie sketches some of the more interesting sides of print journalism -- the pressure to succeed, the flawed system of fact-checking, the flirtations with other publications, internal rivalries, sucking up.
But really, that's about it. There are two points of interest here: Christiansen's portrayal of the schmoozy, insecure Glass and Sarsgaard's portrayal of newly promoted New Republic editor Chuck Lane as he awakens to Glass' scam. But even here there are flaws in the story. Christiansen, with his big brown eyes and quivering, pouting lips, is believable as a kid who doesn't know any better than to flirt, compliment and apologize his way through life. You hear the cry, "Are you mad at me?" so many times you can schedule it in the conversation. But was Glass really this creepy, this sniveling? My suspicion is that Christiansen was encouraged to kind of "worm up" his character, but the probable subtlety of Glass' charm gets lost in the process. Even when Glass performs in a staff meeting during yet another storytelling jag, the camera betrays him, capturing his little dance from the cool distance behind the conference room window.
Ditto Sarsgaard, who smoldered his way through Boys Don't Cry (which also featured Sevigny) and New Orleans filmmaker Mari Kornhauser's Housebound. In both of those films, Sarsgaard kept things off balance with his mysterious, almost squinting eyes. You never knew if, or when, he might explode. Here Sarsgaard's squinting has the air of an editor being distracted into playing detective. "What the hell is your deal?" he seems to say to himself while staring at Glass or off into space. There's a scene toward the end of the movie where Lane, having just kicked Glass out of the office one late night, suddenly pours over previous Glass creations and suddenly realizes that the fraud runs deep. The moment simply doesn't arrive with any of the wallop Ray might be trying to deliver. Maybe he should've thrown more strings onto the soundtrack.
The same can also be said of Zahn playing Adam L. Penenberg, the reporter for the online journal Forbes Digital Tool who exposed the hacker piece. Normally, Zahn's a clown, but he mutes his style here almost into non-existence, except for a classic line about the veracity of Glass' piece ("There does seem to be a state in the Union named Nevada.") But after some rather smart sleuthing, the movie's done.
Stephen Glass' story surely can make journalists feel good about themselves, knowing that a bad apple has been tossed from the barrel, but Shattered Glass does little else in terms of dramatic sweep. With so little back story on all the characters involved, we know little more of Glass' motives than we did at the beginning.
Which is ironic; in this case, getting the facts right leads to a rather perfunctory story. Maybe they should've based the film on Glass' cunningly novelized (and critically panned) version, The Fabulist. Even if it would've been filled with lies, at least it would've been more entertaining.
- Rival journalists Andie Fox (Rosario Dawson), Kambiz Foroohar (Cas Anvar) and Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) are hot on the trail of a fraudulent story in Shattered Glass.