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Breaking Stories, Breaking Glass

 

Shattered Glass

Billy Ray, USA, 2003

Rating: 4.1

 

 

Posted: November 30, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Many if not most viewers will no doubt settle into their seats for Shattered Glass musing on the film's timeliness, coming as it does in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal that rocked The New York Times earlier this year. The temptation to draw parallels between the two incidents is irresistible, but screenwriter Billy Ray's directorial debut resonates on a human level above and beyond the synchronicity of its timing. Given his tactless self-aggrandizing in the media, Blair isn't likely to be viewed with sympathy by very many observers. But in Glass, Ray manages to make us like the sinner, even as we abhor his sin.

Of course, Ray doesn't do all the work. As Stephen Glass, the ambitious young writer for The New Republic, Hayden Christensen pulls off the near-impossible: He makes Glass's pulsing undercurrent of neediness, manifested as a particular admixture of humility and "Please like me" boastfulness familiar to anyone who's ever tried to impress a superior, as ingratiating as it is unsettling. Christensen's acting is a revelation, following his wooden line readings in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones and his sullen screeching in Life as a House. As Glass, Christensen retains a bit of his natural stiffness, but he makes it work: Stephen's hesitant, passive-aggressive nature feeds our understanding of his character, which makes his fictions not only understandable but in a sense inevitable. When he continually asks co-workers "Are you mad at me?," we get a glimpse into the factors that motivate his solicitous personality.

Shattered Glass traces the series of events that led to Glass's ouster from The New Republic, focusing primarily on a particular story about a nonexistent hacker hired as a security consultant for the nonexistent company whose computers he's been attacking. Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn, ably atoning for such sins as Saving Silverman), a writer for an online Forbes publication, sets out to do a follow-up piece, only to run into a troubling obstacle -- he can find no record of the hacker, his agent or the company itself. Penenberg and his editor confront Glass and New Republic editor Chuck Lane, and as Glass constructs a flimsy support system of lies -- fabricated notes, phone numbers and business cards, even a laughably fake company website -- the tension builds to an almost unbearable level. (A discrepancy in the Republic's laborious fact-checking system, it's explained, is that a writer's notes are taken on their word, a system that allowed Glass to invent subjects without much fear of a colleague calling them to confirm facts.)

The slow but steady disintegration of Glass's tissue-thin story is painful to watch, unencumbered by hammy, scenery-chewing confrontations or bombastic musical cues. Ray doesn't bog us down in subplots or apologies for Stephen's behavior; early on, he admits to his concerned colleague Caitlin (Chloe Sevigny) that he's under pressure from his wealthy parents to pursue a career in law, which explains his enrollment in night courses (which take a heavy toll) but thankfully isn't presented as an easy excuse for his fabricating, in whole or in part, a large number of articles presented as fact.

But Ray's matter-of-fact docudrama approach isn't completely objective, which considering the subject matter proves quite fitting (in the real world, journalists aren't completely objective, either). To the extent that it follows anyone outside of the magazine, the film gives us brief glimpses of Lane's home life. This small but essential touch balances the editor's rough edges when he coldly and impersonally lays bare Stephen's lies and eventually fires him. Peter Sarsgaard does a nimble job as Lane, showing us the pressure he works under, especially in regards to his unenviable task of following fired (and much-beloved) editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria, exuding a paternal, regular-guy charm).

It's to Ray's credit that his film resists either demonizing Glass or painting him as a blameless victim. Scenes in which Stephen's colleague Amy (a great, underused Melanie Lynskey) admits to coveting the attention Glass receives as a rising star, and in which Glass imagines talking to his adoring high school teacher's equally adoring journalism class, spell out for us the temptations of acclaim that drive Glass to such desperate measures. The film does leave some questions naggingly unanswered: Since computer hacking is illegal, why does no one ever question Glass's claim that he attended a hackers' convention? How is Glass able to spend so much time fabricating stories -- don't they hand out, you know, assignments at The New Republic? But Shattered Glass ignores these minor speed bumps, gathering momentum in its suspenseful unraveling of its subject's audacious inventions.

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