Shattered Glass (2003)

2003-10-31 (Limited release)

“Are you mad at me?” Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) asks this question repeatedly in Shattered Glass. According to Billy Ray, who based his film on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger, this question granted him insight into the particular pathology and broad symbolism of Stephen Glass.

You may recall that Glass was caught out in 1998 for fabricating a series of articles for the New Republic, under the auspices of two editors, Mike Kelly (Hank Azaria) and Chuck Lane (the terrific Peter Sarsgaard). Writing for the magazine during the Clinton years (at which time, the movie reminds you more than once, it was the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One”), Stephen is here portrayed as gifted, charismatic, and oddly vulnerable, increasingly addicted to his own lies and elaborate processes of lying.

Thankfully, the film is less interested in Glass’ personal psychology than in the political and professional environment that rewards it, an environment that persists today (and of which Jayson Blair is but a symptom). So, while Stephen mentions a father who pressures him to attend law school, by way of explaining to a supportive senior editor, Caitlin (Chloë Sevigny), his social awkwardness, the focus remains fixed on his various performances — for his colleagues and, in a bit of filmic fancy, for a classroom full of young students whom he imagines enraptured by his exploits.

When Mike early on suggests that a story on young Republicans’ hotel room cavorting may be faulty, Stephen hems and haws, then produces “notes” to testify to his own truthfulness. (One of the peculiarities of TNR‘s intricate “fact-checking” system, which entails multiple stages of checking, editing, and copyediting, is that the reporter’s notes are assumed as fact, so that Stephen is able to “document” his own mendacity.) That Stephen is alternately so attractive (demonstrated when he acts out his stories, out of whole cloth, it turns out) and so fretful compounds the problem: he looks so delicate and crumpled that no one wants to injure him further.

Or, when Chuck inquires after sources for a completely made-up article on a hacker hired to set up security by a company whose system he hacked, Stephen goes into a kind of lunatic devious tailspin, creating websites and phone numbers for people who don’t exist. Chuck lets this go until he is pressed by an online magazine’s increasingly insistent questions, stemming from a story by reporter Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) that threatens to take down TNR. With this burden on Chuck, Shattered Glass underlines how much the culture of journalism (and politics, and any other industry premised on trust and good intentions) depends on participants to be honest with one another.

As if to underline the impossibility of that premise, Shattered Glass proposes that Stephen embodies a certain logical end to such trust, a feckless egoism and excessive concern that everyone like him, but also a willful belief that he can make it happen by perpetual conjuring. While this attitude is hardly unique to Stephen, he does make anomalous art of it, successful because so many of his colleagues need to believe the best of him as it reflects the best of themselves. Stephen, for his part, can only see his perfidy as a matter of making someone else “mad” at him, not as a continuum of his own moral, professional, and individual lapses.

But while his “issues” are specific (imagining he can elude discovery by such silly devices as a bogus voicemail), Stephen also represents a much more expansive normalization of lying. And that surely hasn’t changed since he was busted. The film indicts Stephen as a symptom, but also finds a sort of antidote, in the character of Chuck Lane. (This eventual heroism, slow but also noble for that, needs also to be framed: Lane, who now writes for the Washington Post, served the filmmakers as a paid consultant.)

The New Republic staff resents Chuck’s initial appointment as editor, when the publisher (Ted Kotcheff, who directed First Blood so many years ago) fires Kelly, in part because, according to the film, Kelly defends his writers against management. But Chuck will emerge as this film’s “hero.” The only character granted an existence outside the office (even if this is reduced to occasional images of his wife and baby), Chuck is increasingly sympathetic as he suspects his star writer is deceiving everyone.

That is, Chuck doesn’t make the cheating personal, purposely refusing to engage with Stephen’s efforts to do just that (as in, “Are you mad at me?”). This makes Chuck’s life at TNR miserable for a time, as Stephen has earned the devotion of the other writers, including Caitlin and Amy (wonderful Melanie Lynskey, who makes Amy’s sober timidity and depressing desire to achieve Stephen’s ostensibly “effortless” charisma a minor cautionary tale in itself). At first, the other writers don’t comprehend the extent of Stephen’s betrayal, and take up his cause as their own — he’s being picked on, they assume, and band against self-serving management. They’re especially moved when he begins to act all damaged and afraid, literally scrunching down in a corner with his head in his hands. As Chuck tries to get answers from Stephen, the other staffers huddle about, mutter, and watch.

These confrontations, ignominious and alarming for everyone, are exacerbated by the film’s smart uses of space by designer François Séguin (Levity) and cinematographer Mandy Walker (Lantana): windowed cubicles throughout the office allow for precious little privacy, so that most conversations, if not heard, are visible — fragile and exposed. As Stephen spends so much of his considerable energy on physical acting out, the actual space becomes metaphorical too.

As Stephen’s and Chuck’s trajectories take them past one another — one ascending and the other in freefall — Shattered Glass makes no pretense of objectivity, and it plainly yearns for another time, when journalists might be assumed to be trustworthy and honorable. (Indeed, Ray suggested in an interview with this writer that if the film’s opening increased sales of Glass’s recent novel, that would be “unfortunate.”) At the same time, its judgment remains nuanced and its understanding of the complexities of the Glass case is sharp. Most persuasively, the movie considers journalism’s context, ever shifting and self-serving. And while it holds journalism — and journalists — to account, it also shows how easily the whole business collapses, daily, and how hard the work is to persist, even so.