Directed by: Billy Ray
Starring: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny, Melanie Lysnkey, Steve Zahn
I started watching Shattered Glass, the directorial debut from writer Billy Ray (Hart's War), knowing the basic story: that New Republic writer Stephen Glass had been caught with his sources down, and was then fired in disgrace for either wholly fabricating (or at least mildly cooking) many of his articles for the magazine. I finished watching the film knowing almost exactly the same thing (though Shattered Glass did thoughtfully remind me that the final tally was 27 suspect or completely discredited articles out of Glass' total 41).
This isn't to say that Shattered Glass is a bad film; it's not. It's very well made, constantly entertaining and frequently very clever -- and it effectively proves that Hayden Christensen ought not be judged by his performance in Star Wars Episode II. The film, however, fails to provide any genuine insight into why Glass did what he did. And maybe that's not possible -- unless the discredited reporter himself opts to tell us. Even then, the man's propensity for mendacity -- at least based on how he's presented in the film -- would make that suspect.
As a result, we're left with a kind of generally humorless The Front Page for the cyberspace era -- except that this time, it's a single unscrupulous journalist and a somewhat improbable collection of otherwise high-minded colleagues. Where just about everyone in that earlier indictment of journalism is scrupulously unscrupulous, the only character in Shattered Glass who seems anything but wholly honorable is Glass (Christensen) -- and yet he takes everybody for a ride.
Ray's film shrewdly presents certain events in such a way that the audience is suckered into buying at least part of Glass' BS, too. That's no mean trick in a movie where the viewer already knows the basics of the story, though the director works on the premise that audiences will assume seeing is believing -- something you obviously can't always rely on here. This tactic is very nearly a stroke of genius, since it helps overcome the film's one serious problem -- that it takes everyone in Shattered Glass so damned long to question Glass' veracity.
The script itself cleverly raises the question of the exact truth of one Glass story early on, but that story is quickly shown to be at least probably true -- and everyone then settles into buying what Glass is saying and writing. Yet the very concept of Glass' character is problematic: He's both written and played as a kind of ueber Eddie Haskell schmoozing his way through an array of June Cleaver-esque journalists and editors. The big difference is that ol' June -- and indeed everyone -- always knew that Eddie was just oozing with the oil of the banana. Not so here: Everyone is just too willing to buy into the most-brazen flattery, the most-transparent lie and the same old self-deprecation.
By the time Glass does his patented self-deflating "it's probably no good, I'll just forget about it" routine for the third or fourth time, it's hard not to wonder how this credulous lot gets to work without getting lost (much less is able to put out a high-profile national magazine). At first, Glass' co-worker Amy Brand (Melanie Lysnkey, Heavenly Creatures) seems to be catching on to at least part of Glass' game -- though her skepticism is ultimately revealed as nothing more than a form of jealousy. When we find Amy trying to write like Glass, we realize she isn't "on to" him, but wants to be him.
Even when the more level-headed Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard, The Center of the World) takes over the editorial reins from Glass' mentoring champion Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria, America's Sweethearts), it's less a case of skepticism than one of wishing Lane had Glass' "talents." It's only when Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn, National Security), a rival reporter for an online magazine, gets blessed out by his boss for missing out on a big story about an Internet hacker whom Glass covered that things start to unravel -- and serious questions start being raised.
And that, I suspect, is the film's major point: That everyone -- including the professionals -- is simply too quick to believe what they read. It's rather similar to the idea put forth in Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues: People tend to believe a thing if someone took the trouble to write it down. The film's flaw is relying too much on setting up too-credulous characters (along with an unsuspecting audience), and then hoping that its message filters through. To some extent, it does -- but Shattered Glass just isn't wholly believable in terms of its other characters, resulting in a movie where you can see what was being attempted without ever feeling director Ray quite reached his goal.
At the same time, Shattered Glass scores on enough other levels -- not least of which are the performances of Christensen, Zahn and Rosario Dawson -- that it's tempting to overlook the flaws. It's almost as tempting, maybe, as it must have been for the powers that once reigned at The New Republic to accept Glass' work at face value.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke