Monday, August 3, 2009

Shattered Glass

*NOTE* This post originally appeared at Film for the Soul as part of their Counting Down the Zeroes project.

For awhile The New Republic magazine had the reputation of being part of an elite class of periodical with an impeachable reputation. It boasted being the in-flight magazine of Air Force One. For a short time, its most popular contributor was Stephen Glass, a young, up-and-coming writer who wrote dynamic articles and was being courted by other well-known periodicals like George and Rolling Stone. However, an online publication discovered that one of his articles was a complete fabrication which forced The New Republic to do its own in-house investigation. When all was said and done, Glass fabricated either completely or partially 27 of the 41 pieces he wrote for the magazine. Screenwriter Billy Ray decided that Glass’ meteoric rise and fall would be the subject of his directorial debut and the result is Shattered Glass (2003), a fascinating look at contemporary journalistic attitudes and practices.

Early on in the film, Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) sees himself as some sort of star in competition with other staff members, like in a scene where he and Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) compare articles that they are working on. Glass initially describes his as “pretty standard stuff”: young Republicans at a conference, but then elaborates a little – these guys indulge in all sorts of felonies in their hotel rooms. When Lane compliments him, Glass returns the favor in a slightly smug, condescending way. At staff meetings, he cleverly works the room with entertaining stories of articles he’s working on. A typical pitch is all build up and hyperbole and then he ends by saying that he probably won’t finish it or that it’s “silly.” Meanwhile, Lane awkwardly has to follow Glass’ performance and comes off as apprehensive but you can tell that he’s a smart, solid writer.

The cracks in Glass’ facade first appear in an article entitled, “Hack Heaven,” about a computer hacker convention, which sends up red flags for the first time. Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), a writer from Forbes Digital does some digging, like simple searches on the Internet, and finds that Glass’ article is riddled with mistakes and information that appears to be fabricated. Adam and his fellow writers at Forbes do more digging and realize that they’ve latched onto an incredible story: elitist magazine The New Republic has published an article by its star writer that is completely untrue. When he finds out, Lane, now editor of the magazine, decides to do some of his own legwork and begins to suspect that something isn’t right with Glass’ article.

It’s the subtle, yet weaselly way Glass ingratiates himself with the office secretary or plays the role of the vulnerable writer who lacks confidence to two fellow staff members (Chloe Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey) that is so insidious. As portrayed by Hayden Christensen, Glass has the uncanny ability to play to people’s sympathies. He also has a tendency to throw out dorky lines, like when he asks a colleague, “If I were to throw a party where all we did was play Monopoly, would you guys come?” Some of his female co-workers find him endearing in his nerdiness. He’s evasive, like when fellow writers catch hints that he’s writing for other magazines and he shrugs it off as if he isn’t really interested. Glass always seems to be on the defensive, especially when his lies are exposed, with his favorite retort, “are you mad at me?” Christensen does a good job portraying Glass, especially once his articles get criticized and the actor accurately conveys a clammy-handed nervousness as the man’s facade begins to crumble. The actor easily turns in his best performance, playing a duplicitous figure that constantly plays the victim but is a liar of the tallest order and masterful manipulator. Christensen tends to be a blank actor, a reactive blank slate in the tradition of Keanu Reeves. Few filmmakers have found a way to use Christensen’s limited range but his blankness is actually an asset in Shattered Glass.

As depicted in the film, Chuck Lane lacks the person skills that someone like previous New Republic editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), who stuck up for his writers and fostered loyalty among them as a result. There is palpable tension in the scene where Lane takes over as editor of the magazine but Ray doesn’t overdo it with melodramatic music. Peter Sarsgaard received the lion’s share of critical praise for delivering a masterfully understated performance. He doesn’t deliver any blustery, histrionic speeches and instead keeps things grounded in realism by applying restraint whenever possible. Sarsgaard doesn’t try to make his character inherently sympathetic. In fact, Lane comes off as a bit distant and humorless but he has an integrity that is admirable. Sarsgaard is an actor capable of subtle nuances that have resulted in low-key but brilliant turns in films as diverse as Garden State (2004) and Jarhead (2005). There’s a great shot in Shattered Glass of Sarsgaard’s face reacting to Glass’ fumbling attempts to provide sources for his story that shows the mounting anger and frustration barely being contained under his calm facade as he realizes that Glass is full of crap and that this could mean big trouble for the magazine.

Producer Craig Baumgarten, working with HBO executive Gaye Hirsch, optioned the September 1998 Vanity Fair article about Glass by H.G. Bissinger for an HBO original movie. They hired screenwriter Billy Ray to adapt the article into a screenplay in 1999 based on a script he had written for the TNT film Legalese. He used the Bissinger article as a starting point and it gave him a line of dialogue on which to hook the entire character of Glass, which was, “are you mad at me?” According to Ray, “you can build an entire character around that notion, and we did.” However, a sudden change in the corporate climate put the project into turnaround. Ray stuck with it because he knew Bissinger and had previously adapted his article entitled, “Friday Night Lights.” The project collected dust for two years until Cruise/Wagner Productions bought Ray’s script from HBO and took it to Lions Gate. Ray asked the studio if he could direct and amazingly they agreed.

Ray grew up with legendary reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as his heroes and went to journalism school for a year. It was his love for journalism that influenced his decision to direct Shattered Glass. In preparation for the film, Ray interviewed and re-interviewed key figures for any relevant detail. He signed some of them as paid consultants and gave several approval over the screenplay. Lions Gate lawyers asked Ray to give them an annotated script where he had to footnote every line of dialogue and every assertion and back them up with corresponding notes. The challenge for Ray was to make the subject matter watchable because according to the filmmaker, “watching people write is deadly dull ... in a film like this, dialogue is what a character is willing to reveal about himself, and the camera is there to capture everything else.” The breakthrough for him came when he realized that the film’s real protagonist was not Glass but Lane. According to Ray, “as fascinating as Stephen Glass is by the end of the movie people would want to kill themselves – you just can’t follow him all the way.”

Early on, Ray spent a considerable amount of time trying to earn the trust of the people who had worked with Glass and get them to understand that he was going to be objective with the subject matter. Upset with how he was portrayed in the Vanity Fair article, Michael Kelly refused to look at Ray’s script for two years. In fact, he threatened to sue when first contacted but when he finally read the script, he gave it his approval. Ray’s breakthrough on the project came when he convinced Lane and Kelly to cooperate. Ray also attempted to contact Glass through his lawyers for his input but did not receive a response.

The night before principal photography began in Montreal, Ray screened All the President’s Men (1976) for the cast and crew in order to give them an idea of what he was shooting for. He shot both halves of the film differently – in the first half, he used hand-held cameras whenever they were in The New Republic offices, but when the Forbes editors begin to question Glass, the camerawork is more stable. Ray’s original edit was a more straightforward account of the events but while editing the film he realized that it wasn’t good enough. He raised additional funds to shoot the high school scenes that bookend the film. These consist of a fantasy world perpetuated by Glass addressing a class of students at his old high school. Clippings of his articles appear on a wall. His former teacher claims that she was his “journalistic muse.” The students hang on his every word. In addition, Ray shows us glimpses of the elaborate fantasies Glass fabricated in his articles. These scenes demonstrate how well Glass was able to delude himself and create a fantasy world where he is loved and admired by others.

Shattered Glass received extremely positive reviews from critics. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called the film "a serious, well-observed examination of the practice of journalism." He added, "A more showily ambitious film might have tried to delve into Glass's personal history in search of an explanation for his behavior, or to draw provocative connections between that behavior and the cultural and political climate of the times. Such a movie would also have been conventional, facile and ultimately false. Mr. Ray knows better than to sensationalize a story about the dangers of sensationalism.” Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and felt the film was well-cast and "deserves comparison with All the President’s Men among movies about journalism." Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A" rating and praised Hayden Christensen's performance: "Right from the start, Hayden Christensen is a revelation, and not just because his performance, all mind games and subliminal facial tics, transcends the rinky-dink teen heroics of the Star Wars universe. It's because he lets us see that it's Glass himself who's playacting the role of an elite young Washington journalist.” Premiere magazine's Glenn Kenny wrote, "it’s Peter Sarsgaard, as the editor who serves Glass his just deserts, who walks away with the picture, metamorphosing his character’s stiffness into a moral indignation that’s jolting and, finally, invigorating.” In his review for the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter wrote, "I particularly like the way Ray made no excuses for Glass and makes us see how shallow and cynical were his persistent cries of victimization. Ray makes us believe that we shouldn't care for Glass any more than he cared for his colleagues, his friendships or his profession. Which is to say, not a bit" Glass saw the film and found the experience to be “very painful for me. It was like being on a guided tour of the moments of my life I am most ashamed of.”

Glass epitomized a kind of slick superstar journalism that is short on content, long on style, or as one New Republic writer tells another, “”These guys don’t want policy pieces anymore, they want color, they want nuance, humor.” Ray has crafted one of the best journalistic exposes that deserves to be ranked up there with All the President’s Men and The Insider (1999), but unlike those films, Shattered Glass refuses to elevate its protagonist to the level of crusading hero. Lane comes across as a normal guy doing his job who had to deal with some extraordinary circumstances. It is an incredible story: how a writer was able to snowball so many prestigious publications for so long. Glass joins a rogue’s gallery with the likes of Jayson Blair and his fictional reporting for The New York Times and Sony marketing executive Matthew Cramer’s made-up movie critic David Manning who just happened to give rave reviews to every film released by the studio.

Here's the trailer:


  1. J.D.:

    I'm glad you wrote this review and analysis of this underrated film. It's a good cautionary tale for writers of all stripes, I think.

    I have Shattered Glass on DVD, and it's a compelling film to return to peridiocally. Glass is such a desperate, needy and fascinating person; so skilled at manipulation. So hungry for approbation; so genius in his creative feints...right up until the end when it's obvious to everyone except him that the game is up. Watching his downfall is...addictive; impossible to turn away from.

    I'm glad you pointed out how strong Christensen's performance is here. Too often, he gets a bad rap, but he's generally pretty solid outside of Lucas films (something I could also say about Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewen McGregor, etc...). It's just that Christensen hasn't done as much as those other actors, so it's easier to tag him as Anakin Wooden.


  2. John Kenneth Muir:

    I've always felt that this film would make a good double bill with THE INSIDER and you're right, it is a solid cautionary tale for writers.

    Y'know, I haven't seen too much of Christensen's work outside of the STAR WARS films. He was fairly decent in FACTORY GIRL but I've resisted watching JUMPER as it looks like a pretty silly film but it does have Diane Lane in a small role so I might have to check it out at some point.

  3. I remember when this movie came out. I never saw it. I did read some really positive reaction to it. Glad to see it get some credit and attention. I'll have to make sure to check it out.

  4. Keith:

    Yeah, it received pretty much universal praise if memory serves and is an excellent. I hope you get a chance to check it out.