Shattered Glass isn’t quite the All About Eve of print journalism, yet this invigorating movie about male prima donnas on the prowl is a kick, a deft addition to the small genre of literary suspense films. Given the well-publicized outcome of Stephen Glass’s excellent adventure at The New Republic (TNR), that writer-director Billy Ray can create palpable tension over this masquerade qualifies as something of a miracle.
Near the film’s beginning, Glass (Hayden Christensen) offers the viewer sage tips on being a compelling reporter. “If you’re the least bit self-effacing, you stand out.” Glass then proceeds to be so falsely self-effacing that one wants to punch him. He fawns obsequiously over his TNR colleagues, fetching them coffee and paying overblown compliments (while, I might add, preciously shuffling barefoot through the office). In story conferences, his every well-rehearsed self-deprecation (“Pretty boring, huh? Pretty dumb. It’s probably nothing”) doubles as a tawdry self-promotion. Later, the film briefly depicts an eager young associate named David who deploys similar techniques, and Glass writhes at becoming a target of his own tactics.
Ray doesn’t skirt the potential for comedy in Glass’s Byzantine fabrications. Granted, the humor is often as dry as vermouth, as when Glass says, “Thanks for backing me,” after editor Michael Kelly bails him out of a jam, and Kelly replies, “It’s what editors do.” I also love how Ray intersperses the scenes set at TNR with shots of Glass’s rich fantasy life. We become privy to the fictions that Glass fobbed off as truth in his magazine articles, and we see these pulsating dreams as he might have vicariously imagined living them.
Portraying this whiny pathological liar, a man-child who stoops to hysteria in order to win influence, Christensen is a revelation. He makes Glass neither too boorish nor too sympathetic. Hank Azaria, in his few scenes as Michael Kelly (Glass’s first editor at TNR), looks and sounds like a newsman. Kelly died last spring while covering the war in Iraq, and Azaria’s finely calibrated performance doesn’t dishonor the man.
In the larger, trickier role of Chuck Lane, Kelly’s successor, the editor who would ultimately fire Glass, Peter Sarsgaard conveys much with gradual changes of facial expression. His granular, pockmarked visage makes him a perfect choice as the reticent Lane, an unassuming intellectual who generated little staff support in either his rise to editor or his probe into the veracity of Glass’s stories. For the first hour, he’s almost playing a silent role. In fact, Sarsgaard’s silences are more impressive than some of his line readings, if only because Ray over-directs the two climactic confrontation scenes.
There are other flaws, notably in the shallowness of the women’s roles. (Ray allows the gifted Chloë Sevigny to float adrift here.) Yet Shattered Glass gets so many details just right—from the uneasy alliance of a young man’s wonderment and ambition to an irresistible backstage portrait of a major publication. The movie left me glowing. – NPT
November 4, 2003