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Shattered Glass

     Five years after, he's back! Stephen Glass, the baby-faced New Republic reporter who was fired in 1998 when it was verified that 47 of his 61 stories were partly or totally fabricated, made a "60 Minutes" appearance some weeks ago, and can "Leno" and "Letterman" be far off? Still Dorian Gray-young, he told his "60 Minutes" interviewer that he's been in therapy since booted from The New Republic, trying to understand why he did the bad things that he did. Glass, so sincere, looked straight into the camera and – a lost puppy! – moaned, "I hurt the people I worked with, I hurt my family, I hurt my friends, I hurt my readers."

     Yes, it's the same old young Stephen Glass who, as a disgusted New Republic book editor observed on "60 Minutes," is "using contrition as a career move." Not that he's been financially suffering. Glass's recent autobiographical novel, The Fabulist, about a con-man very much like himself, quoth "60 Minutes," got him a six-figure advance.

     Though chortling all the way to the bank, Glass must also be looking nervously over his shoulder at the new fictionalized movie about him, Shattered Glass, a decidedly non-authorized bio pic. Written and directed by Billy Ray, the film dramatizes at its center those weeks at The New Republic when Glass's stories were discovered to be made up, and characterizes its eponymous protagonist as a slithering, scummy, out-for-himself scoundrel, a hypocrite, a cry-baby.

     The chief advisor for the film? Charles "Chuck" Lane, the then New Republic editor who blew the whistle on Glass, and fired him. "I have no admiration for Stephen Glass," said screenwriter-director Ray, when the film had its world premiere in August at the Telluride Film Festival. "I've heard that he read the script, and doubted its veracity. I can think of no better seal of approval than that Stephen thinks it's untrue."

     And yet. Isn't there something about Glass that sticks with us anyway, an undeniable negative charisma, like "Scarface"Al Capone, or Richard the Third?

     Shattered Glass is a terrific film, perhaps the best American feature of 2003, and a chief reason is that Glass, interpreted sensationally by Hayden Christensen, impresses and amazes us even as he's being a sordid little worm. What a Borgesian imagination! His fabricated essays for The New Republic are the most vivid, entertaining fictions, with labyrinthine plots and otherworldy casts of subterranean characters. Too bad he claimed these tales were true! And when his Glass is caught in his bundle of lies, Christensen wiggles and squirms and makes up more uncanny stories to get out of it, the awesome improvs of a jazz musician pro squealing on his horn.

     The last we noticed Christensen, he was the bland cub-hero lead, Anakin Skywalker, in George Lucas's lethal Star Wars: Episode II-Attack of the Clones (2002). Who could imagine that he could stretch out like this, his Stephen Glass an amalgam of Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen, Sammy Glick, and Machiavelli. The real Glass was 24 when he pulled his journalist pranks. Christensen looks even younger, a sweaty, excitable adolescent, cute as a button with his little rimless glasses.

     He wants to be loved; he wants to impress. He ingratiates himself, especially to the women at the New Republic. Young or old, they all want to mother him. Though they're put off by his constant namedropping, intimidated because his printed stories are more exciting, more amusing, and much more read than what they've written, the gals all forgive him, and his excesses. Stephen's very young, after all, and young people sometimes make rash mistakes.

     Ray frames his narrative in an interesting way, with a visit by Glass, in a coat and tie, to his old high school, where his proud journalism teacher from seven years back now uses him as a celebrity example for her current students. While they listen intently, Glass lectures this clean-cut class about the ethics and excitements of the reporter's life, and he lets them in on life at the New Republic. This way, we get rose-colored Glass's version of his biography. The New Republic is a kind of round-table fantasy utopia, and the editor, Michael Kelly, is as noble and steadfast a lordly presence as King Arthur. O unlucky day, when Kelly is fired by New Republic publisher, Martin Peretz, and replaced by Chuck Lane.

     Cut away from Glass's high school to in-house at The New Republic. All parties telling the story agree at this juncture: the youthful New Republic Staff, median age 26, resented Lane's appointment as editor, and resented him. They openly bonded against Lane, and were angered and hostile when he chose one of their group, Stephen Glass, to come down on. Wasn't it because (and this was Glass's claim), Lane viewed Stephen as a Michael Kelly loyalist?

     The film, with Lane's input behind it, rebuts this point of view. Even as he became more and more suspicious of Glass's stories, Lane acted slowly and cautiously, unnerved that his staff was so much against him. And Glass a Kelly man? Certainly with the other writers, but Stephen, alone of the staff, came into Lane's office the first day and offered total support to the new editor!

     The great section of Shattered Glass is the half hour in which Lane finally guts it out and makes a move, ultimately firing Glass, driving the begging, groveling reporter away from his desk, his computer, and out of the New Republic office forever. What tension when Lane and Glass walk through the streets of Washington so that Glass can prove, via showing the locations, that a story he wrote about a "hacker" convention really happened. But the building where the Sunday event allegedly occurred has no convention hall, and it's closed on Sundays!

     Here is the most intense, paranoia-inducing visit to Washington since the 1976 film of All the President's Men. The immortal duo of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein are actually matched by Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard as Glass and Lane.

     Let me end by praising Peter Sargaard for his exemplary performance, internal acting at its thrilling best. He plays Lane as reticent, slightly melancholy, slow to rush to judgment, but boiling, boiling inside. We don't see much on his impassive face, but we can feel him weighing evidence, churning inside. What a fabulous moment, when he, a boss-in-the-making, finally explodes at his odious, lying, cheating, squalid employee. Chuck Lane, the emerging ethical hero of Shattered Glass, has had enough!

(December, 2003)

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