“Shattered Glass” spins a fairly compelling dramatization of the journalistic scam perpetrated by Stephen Glass at The New Republic, the magazine that fired him after learning he fabricated stories.
The film is timely, coming on the heels of The New York Times scandal over Jayson Blair, who resigned last spring after filing phony or plagiarized articles.
Unfortunately for people interested in what made Glass tick, the film is mainly surface detail, with no insight into why he passed off fiction as journalism.
Director-screenwriter Billy Ray, basing the film on a Vanity Fair piece by H.G. Bissinger that examined the Glass story, rightly calls “Shattered Glass” the cinematic equivalent of good reporting.
Though a dramatic narrative, the film feels objective and nonjudgmental. It points no fingers, it does not glorify or denigrate Glass, and it never tries to amplify the events to build a more sinister or grandiose melodrama.
Yet from a storytelling perspective, it would have been nice if “Shattered Glass” strayed a bit onto the op-ed page and offered some perspective on Glass’ motives.
The film presents Glass as smart, ambitious and talented, a young journalist who could have excelled the old-fashioned way, chasing down real sources and crafting compelling, truthful prose.
Bissinger was unable to interview Glass for his article, relying instead on co-worker accounts. But Ray himself interviewed many of Glass’ colleagues, too, and those conversations must have provided some inkling into Glass’ frame of mind. None of that translates to the screen, though.
A profession in defeat
Hayden Christensen, on break from his Anakin Skywalker stint in “Star Wars,” stars as Glass, a New Republic prodigy who dazzles his editors and associates with a seemingly bottomless well of fascinating story pitches and colorful sources.
Glass should be the wunderkind his confederates love to hate for perpetually outshining them, yet his fawning, self-effacing manner ingratiates him with everyone in the office, including fellow reporters Caitlin Avey (Chloe Sevigny) and Amy Brand (Melanie Lynskey).
He tries to defuse potential criticism by rushing to condemn his work before anyone else can. At the first sign of disapproval, Glass blurts out the puppy-dog mantra, “Are you mad at me?”
Christensen ladles it on too thickly, at times becoming so whiny and transparently insincere that it’s hard to buy the snow job he pulls on such a respected journalistic institution.
The film redeems itself with a gripping, fast-paced expose of Glass’ misdeeds. The first hint of trouble comes when editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) receives a call questioning facts in Glass’ piece about party animals at a conservative political convention.
After Kelly, beloved mentor for Glass and other writers, is fired, reporter Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) is promoted, taking over amid blatant hostility from his staff. (Kelly, later an editor for The Atlantic Monthly, was killed in Iraq last spring).
Lane ends up presiding over the Glass debacle, which erupts from an article about a computer hacker who signs a million-dollar payday with a software company he victimized.
As two online magazine reporters (Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson) try to chase down principals cited in the story, Lane gradually learns to his horror that Glass fabricated people, places and events on that article and two dozen others.
By no means an “All the President’s Men” tale of journalistic heroes, “Shattered Glass” still captures a sense of the nobility that can characterize the much-maligned profession even in defeat. Lane’s dogged pursuit of the truth, his desire to clean up his own house, and the bond that eventually supplants discord between him and his staff make for a heroic journey of its own sort.