Shattered Glass (2003)

5 May


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How far does ambition go in the workplace? Or, in the case of “Shattered Glass,” how far does ambition go in journalism? “Shattered Glass” is a film based on true events in the late-‘90s, about a young writer, named Stephen Glass, who strived to get so far in the reporting business that he actually fabricated more than two dozen stories for the New Republic just so he could get ahead. He didn’t just bend the rules; he flat-out made up the facts as he went along and attempted to cover his tracks with elaborate stories and hoaxes. Why did he do it? Maybe he thought he would impress his fellow staff writers if he could write the most riveting stories, so he created stories about a drunken Young Republicans hotel-gathering and a computer hacker’s convention featuring a young hacker who sold computer companies his knowledge to get rid of other hackers, in exchange for anything he wanted.

You could say these stories are too good to be true, and that’s probably what Stephen’s co-workers think. But Stephen has notes for fact-checkers to verify, they love Stephen’s enthusiasm as he talks about his stories, and more importantly, they love him. Even when his wispy, whiny personality seems to annoy people, all he has to do is ask the question, “Are you mad at me?” They can’t stay mad at him.

That’s the way writer-director Billy Ray sees it in “Shattered Glass,” which stars Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass.

Christensen portrays Glass effectively, as a naïve kid who desperately wants to be liked by his peers and co-workers and will even flat-out lie to everybody to gain sympathy, even when he is caught by his editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard in an excellent performance), by accident. When is Stephen Glass telling the truth in this film? It’s hard to tell, because he’s a convincing liar. He always plays an innocent. Is he an innocent? There are times near the end, when he creates a sob-story when he knows he’s about to be fired from the New Republic, that it’s so unsettling to watch him like this. But it’s all so fascinating, and Hayden Christensen turns in a solid performance.

One thing we don’t see in this film is how good Glass is as a journalist. You have to wonder from watching this film if he ever wrote a story he didn’t make up himself. If so, why is that? Is it because he kept thinking he could get away with it? That he could continue to fool people? Is he just addicted to lying? What we do know is that when Glass is ultimately caught, he doesn’t see it as a big deal by that point.

This really did happen. Stephen Glass did in fact create these stories. The New Republic published fiction and didn’t even know about it until Internet journalist Adam Penenberg (played by Steve Zahn) checked the facts himself, brought the attention TNR editor Chuck Lane, and exposed the article, causing Lane to fire Glass. It’s almost hard to believe, but sometimes the most impressive stories are the ones that are true. Maybe if Glass looked around some more, he wouldn’t have had to imagine his articles.

“Shattered Glass” is a terrific film that shows the pressures of journalism as well as the questions of limited ambition in such a workplace (Glass’ opening narration about his job is one of the most truthful speeches I’ve heard, especially now that I’ve worked at the University of Central Arkansas newspaper, the Echo, for two semesters now). It’s also very well-acted. I’ve said how good Hayden Christensen is as the title character, but I can’t forget Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane, who’s really the hero of the story. In the beginning of the film, he already has enough to worry about—he’s not popular among his co-workers, and is even less so when he replaces the original editor Michael Kelly, whom everyone loved. He’s not very charismatic, is constantly under pressure with deadlines and all that fun stuff with journalism, and now he has to deal with this “kid” (because, really, that’s what the others see Glass as: a kid), and hope that he’s wrong about his suspicions because he knows that if he fires him, no one will want to listen to his reasons why. Sarsgaard is great here; he does an excellent job at balancing out his ethics and wants. He, along with many other aspects (the script, the execution, the rest of the actors) make “Shattered Glass” definitely worth looking into.

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