House of Glass
They’re already saying Shattered Glass is the best film about journalism since All the President’s Men. And it’s true. Written and directed by Billy Ray from an article by Buzz Bissinger, Shattered Glass tells of the sudden downfall of Stephen Glass, the reporter for The New Republic (TNR) who turned out to have invented all or part of 27 pieces he wrote for the magazine. Like All the President’s Men, Ray’s movie is memorable because it’s not only about journalism. Nobody really cares what happens at a political magazine with a circulation of 80,000—even if it is the self-styled “in-flight magazine of Air Force One.” But everybody knows someone like Glass, and we don’t always get what Ray gives us in his movie: the immense satisfaction of seeing a smarmy, brown-nosing little fake get what’s coming to him.
Glass enjoyed a meteoric career at TNR, rising to an associate editorship by the age of 25. He crashed and burned with a piece he wrote about a teenage computer hacker breaking into the system of a huge software corporation and then hiring an agent to strike a lucrative deal with the company to work for it against other hackers. A reporter for Forbes’ online mag tried to do a follow-up on Glass’ TNR scoop but was unable to locate the teen hacker, his agent or even the company mentioned in Glass’ article. From that point, as former TNR editor Charles Lane began digging, the whole mendacious structure of Glass’ career collapsed.
In Ray’s movie, Hayden Christensen plays Glass with puppy-dog ardor. He’s the perfect sociopathic schmoozer—a combination of star quarterback and team mascot. He pads around the office in his stocking feet, ingratiating himself and playing to the individual soft spots of receptionists, fellow writers and editors alike. He makes everyone want to either nurture or emulate him. He regales editorial board meetings with hilarious (invented) accounts of the stories he’s working on (Ray shows us the scenes while Glass describes them) and then shrugs them off: “It’s probably nothing. I doubt if I’ll even write it.” He cringes as editors read his stuff: “It’s awful, isn’t it? It’s the worst thing I’ve ever written.” And at the tiniest hint of disapproval: “Do you hate me?” He’s always dropping obvious cues for others to gush over him, and they rise to it every time.
Ray frames the film with cutaway scenes of Glass addressing a high-school journalism class, while his former teacher beams proudly and the students hang on his words. Glass brandishes his aw-shucks modesty like a cattle prod, ramping up their admiration for him with every shrug and toe-scuff.
As Glass’ lies begin to trip him up, Pinocchio-like, he concocts new whoppers to cover the old ones. Then the impossible happens: He goes from being the hero to being the villain of his own story. The good-guy role devolves onto Lane. The editor begins not exactly as the villain but not terribly sympathetic either. He’s low-key, even a little dull, and the other writers don’t warm to him as they do to Glass. When beloved editor Michael Kelly is fired, and Lane gets his job, the staff’s loyalty goes out the door with Kelly. As Lane investigates Glass, the reporter uses this to wring sympathy from the staff, spinning his own problems into Lane’s purge of “Kelly people.” His message to the others: Stand up for me, or you’re next.
As Lane, Peter Sarsgaard is marvelously subtle; Lane’s every thought is crystal clear in his eyes and on his bland, seemingly impassive face. It’s the kind of performance that never wins awards but that other actors notice, study and learn from.
The real Glass has voiced a squirming admiration for Ray’s film; his only regret, he said, was that Ray didn’t ask for his perspective.
Personally, I think Ray was wise to avoid it. I can just see how their story conference would have started, with Glass leaning toward Ray, wringing his hands and whimpering, “Do you hate me?”