When Stephen Glass’ short, brilliant career blew up in his face in 1998, it was inevitable that the star reporter who had snowed The New Republic and other august East Coast rags with fabricated stories for almost three years would be pilloried — by the very media who had lionized him — as a symbol not only of the ills of celebrity journalism, but of much that ails America in the age of spin. Next to the priesthood, there may be no profession so simultaneously demonized and idealized as journalism, on which public opinion is now more or less totally dependent. Dependence breeds resentment: Glass (and The New York Times’ Jayson Blair after him, and we’ve probably not seen the last of it) was held accountable for the rise of careerism over calling, for the premature elevation of smart-alecks and whippersnappers to positions of power and authority they lack the emotional maturity to handle, for the complicity of the media in exacerbating the confusion of a public already groaning under information overload, and for burgeoning dishonesty and venality in the culture at large.
That may be more cultural weight than a screwed-up young man with a distended fantasy life should have to carry in the public imagination — though, as fallen angels go, Glass gave himself a long way to drop. In 27 of the 41 stories he wrote over two and a half years for The New Republic, he didn’t just embroider facts or create composite characters, as Janet Cooke had infamously done in her 1980 Pulitzer Prize–winning story about an 8-year-old heroin addict for the Washington Post. Glass invented whole scenarios and characters, and then he began to make up whole stories, leaving a paper trail of extraordinarily complex detail for fact checkers that entailed the creation of bogus business cards, fake Web sites and voice mails for nonexistent companies. He had an extraordinarily vivid imagination, and it’s fair to say that his gifts dovetailed beautifully with the growing premium placed on breezy, colorful writing of the kind that made Tina Brown’s New Yorker such forgettable fun to read, livened up The New York Times Magazine no end, and fed the maws of George, Harper’s and Rolling Stone, all of which showered Glass with fat contracts that — at 25 years old — brought his annual income close to $150,000.
We’ll never know for sure whether Glass is an attention-seeking, manipulative jerk, a full-court psycho or merely a victim of poor career guidance. (Many, if not most, journalists have a thwarted novelist seething within, and after his fall from grace, Glass published a novel titled The Fabulist, about a journalist who makes up stories that fool even his canniest editors.) Still, there is much in Buzz Bissinger’s fine Vanity Fair story about the Glass affair that suggests what drove this ambitious wunderkind — enormous pressure to succeed, both from his family and from the intensely competitive high school he attended in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, and a younger brother who excelled at everything he turned his hand to.
You’d think that a movie based on Glass’ rise and fall would work the biopic angle, but writer and first-time director Billy Ray, who based Shattered Glass on Bissinger’s piece, has taken a higher road. Indeed this likable, rather tweedy film is less about Glass and his many treacheries than it is about Charles Lane, the freshly promoted New Republic editor who finally nailed him. Far from being an exposé of media hackery, Shattered Glass is an ardent defense of ethical journalism — which is moving enough for insiders, but may not be all that exciting to a general audience. The ‰ movie is framed in part by an inspirational speech Glass gives to a worshipful class at his old high school, but we learn next to nothing about his early years. Ray’s refusal to psychologize Glass is refreshing, but it’s also a missed opportunity to climb out on a limb about what — or who — motivated his capacity for deceit and, in the end, for self-immolation. Hayden Christensen, a pretty boy diligently trying to pass as a dweeb, plays Glass with a weak, red mouth and a wan lack of focus that fails to answer one of the movie’s big questions — by what force of personality he managed to dupe the entire staff at the magazine, including then-editor Michael Kelly, a colorful and immensely popular figure, puzzlingly underplayed by Hank Azaria. It’s true that after it was all over, more than one former colleague observed that Glass seemed somehow to lack a center. But by all accounts he was extremely well-liked around the offices of The New Republic, modest and self-effacing outside the meetings in which he wove his fantasy stories to entranced editors, attentive and sympathetic to the troubles of his co-workers. Christensen’s slack goofiness does little to show us how such a doofus could so ingratiate himself, and why his apparent innocence was so sinister. For that matter, it is hard to see why his equally brilliant colleagues — composite figures for New Republic staffers Margaret Talbot, Hanna Rosin and Ruth Shalit (who had her own brush with fakery) played by a chilly Chloë Sevigny and a wispy Melanie Lynskey (Kate Winslet’s murderous sidekick in Heavenly Creatures) — would fall for a pathetic line like “I brought you some gum.”
The answer, given to us in intertitles early on in the film, is that the average age of the magazine’s editorial staff was 26, when the thirst for excitement weighs more than the need for integrity. Far and away the strongest performance in Shattered Glass is Peter Sarsgaard’s quietly impacted turn as Charles Lane, who, at 36, had the thankless task of succeeding the enormously popular Kelly after Kelly was fired by the notoriously cranky New Republic publisher Martin Peretz, and convincing his sullen staff that all was not well with Stephen Glass’ work. The movie only really comes alive when it tracks Glass’ unmasking over a story he had made up from start to finish, about a teenage computer hacker trying to extort money from a vulnerable corporation. There was no hacker, there was no company, and the fun lies in following a young star reporter (played with manic brio by Steve Zahn) at the online magazine Forbes Digital Tool take down Glass’ wall of lies brick by brick. Then comes the sorrow and the inspiration as an agonized Lane, who has so much to lose by confirming his suspicions, plows ahead anyway. Watching Shattered Glass, I couldn’t help wondering what kind of black-hearted romp Paul Schrader, Peter Weir or David Lynch might have made of Stephen Glass’ sorry tale. Yet I’m heartened that someone still has enough faith in the fourth estate to imagine this tawdry saga as an old-fashioned morality play in which the good guys come up tops.
SHATTERED GLASS | Written and directed by BILLY RAY, based on the Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger | Produced by CRAIG BAUMGARTEN, ADAM MERIMS, GAYE HIRSCH and TOVE CHRISTENSEN | Released by Lions Gate Films | At selected theaters