Shattered Glass

Before Johann Hari, before Jayson Blair, there was a journalistic fraud named Stephen Glass who conned readers and fellow journalists at multiple respected outlets, most notably The New Republic. Buzz Bissinger wrote an sterling account of Glass’ rise and fall for Vanity Fair magazine which writer/director Billy Ray subsequently translated to the screen in 2003: Shattered Glass.

The plot: Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) is the hottest staff writer at The New Republic as well as a frequent contributor to many other respected outlets. Glass’ interpersonal manner is humble — even obsequious — as well as ingratiating to the point of seeming desperate to please. His editor Mike Kelly (Hank Azaria) and his fellow writers, including his friend Caitlin Avey (based on journalist Hanna Rosin and played by Chloë Sevingy) are all under his spell, with the exception of another writer, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), who becomes the editor when Kelly is fired. Things almost immediately start to come undone as Lane grows suspicious when a rival publication finds holes in Glass’ latest story. Glass scrambles to offer evidence in his defense, while also trying to turn the staff against Lane for not backing him up. Superb journalistic drama ensues.

Of the many things to appreciate in this movie, most people will fixate on Christensen’s tremendously jittery, whiny, scheming portrayal of Glass. But in the less showy leading role, Sarsgaard matches Christensen step for step as an ethical person who is slowly disabused of his expectation that his colleague has anything like the same values. Azaria, Sevigny and Steve Zahn are also solid in supporting roles.

The overriding triumph is Ray’s both for getting such strong performances from his cast and also for maintaining pace and tension in a story largely composed of journalists having conversations with each other. Ray uses each lie, each seeming exposure, and each subsequent lie which starts the cycle again as the engine of the drama, and it works very well, as does the internal dynamic within the magazine’s staff over whom everyone will ultimately believe (the only weakness of the script was that the final scene wrapped that storyline up a bit abruptly, but it’s still a strong close).

Sadly, this fine movie did not do well at the box office. But it deservedly wowed the critics. Having seen it when it came out and again 20 years later, I consider it one of the great films about journalism, as well as an intriguing character study of a creative but destructive person.

p.s. The film leaves open the question of whether Glass was simply a pathetic, needy person who wanted approval so much that he lied compulsively to get it, or, a calculating sociopath who took delight in fooling those around him. If you want more insight into the answer, Glass’s interview years after the scandal is must see.

p.p.s. If you are wondering what happened to Jonathan Chait, Glass’ friend and colleague at TNR, Ray turned him into a female character named Amy Brand (play be Melanie Lynskey) for the movie.