Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 15, 2003 12:19 am 
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Glass houses

What makes Shattered Glass of some little interest is that it’s not only a psychological portrait but also a relatively detailed picture of the inside of a prestigious American political magazine. There’s at least some suggestion of what writing for such a publication is like: the idea sessions, the rough drafts, the hassles over style, the fact checking, the rewrites. There’s even a rather far-fetched sequence that shows the publisher's obsession with commas. Other moments depict competition and camaraderie among the young staff writers. You get a taste of the loyalties to fired editors, the pride in working for the magazine, the personal rivalries.

You don’t get much about researching a story, because the movie concerns a young writer who worked for The New Republic in the Nineties named Stephen Glass. Glass didn’t research stories. He made them up. He published a lot of articles in TNR over a period of several years, and more than half of them were fabricated. The magazine’s fact checkers and editors failed to detect the deceit until Glass got caught on one story about computer hackers and his house of cards collapsed.

A pathological liar, a forger of fake facts, Stephen Glass was finally nothing but a con man. Typically such a person is empty inside, creating ersatz accomplishments to fill a huge void. Hayden Christensen plays Glass as a needy charmer whose shows of ingenuity and diligence mask a childlike desire to impress at all costs.

Christensen resembles Anthony Perkins here. Tall and thin, boyishly cute, hiding behind dutiful spectacles and always in proper shirt and tie, he's a well-behaved fellow who flatters all the women in the office. But he's pathologically insecure with superiors. "Are you mad at me?" he asks, when the stroking he needs is withheld or he's asked to produce his notes to back up a questionable passage. He's an emotional child whose needs are too numerous to be met legitimately.

The early scenes suggest that besides charm, Glass possesses other con man prerequisites like intelligence, ingenuity and invention. But like Tony Perkins in some of his roles, Christensen better embodies the good looks and neurosis of his character than his high functioning, productive side.

Christensen shines at projecting the slow crumbling of Glass's façade once his fakery is found out. If this isn't exactly a risk-taking role for the young actor, it is nonetheless one that requires dexterity and alertness. There’s a precise sense that Glass is slowly erecting a doomed edifice that’s going to crash and bury him. (Benjamin Wallace-Wells, reviewing the real Stephen Glass’s recent autobiographical novel, The Fabulist, called his TNR articles “gaudy, rococo constructions” and “fabulism camp”: they were absurdly exaggerated fantasies, blatantly too good to be true.)

Glass plays Good Boy and Smart Boy; in Christensen’s version he also plays Cute Boy. But aside from the youthful appeal, he projects such sternness about fact checking and journalistic standards that his peers never imagine he’s a shameless liar. The gradual collapse is less hysterical and troubling than a Tony Perkins performance, but it has an emotional edge of hurt and sadness. Shattered Glass is intelligent; it’s a grownup movie about an overgrown child.

It’s also very topical. The distinctions between hack work and responsible craft have been blurred by buyouts and bottom lines. The same magnates now own all segments of the media. ET, The New Republic, the Nightly News, an instant book: suddenly they’re just indistinguishable commodities dressed up to sell. The skewed values have led to negative results as dramatic as the recent firings of Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg of the New York Times, which brought down two of the paper’s top editors. It’s astonishing that Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, reviewing this movie, found its fuss over journalistic fabrication laughable. "What's new?" he asks, cynically. But since when has The New Yorker taken its fact checking so lightly? The pressures on needy, eager young journalists may be too great to bear, but it seems moral standards are eroding further up as well.

Shattered Glass is well directed and cast. Peter Sarsgaard, who showed his mettle in Boys Don’t Cry, is powerful as the new editor Chuck Lane, initially despised by the staff, who brings Glass to the mat. Chloë Sevigny is good as an adoring colleague. There's poetic justice in seeing Steve Zahn step aside from his charming buffoon roles to become Adam Penenberg of Forbes Digital Tool, the brilliant reporter who detected Glass’s inventions in his story, “Hack Heaven.” Zahn has a healthy working class air that makes a good contrast with Christensen’s preppy look. Zahn can play smart too, maybe better than Christensen can.

A dubious moment is the capitulation of the staff to Lane with a signed letter of support and a round of applause. It’s too pat a resolution of the issue of their loyalty to Glass and their dislike of Lane. A recurrent framing scene of Glass addressing a high school class is unfortunate and confusing. The cross cutting between these two sequences at the end is a pointless device to generate excitement.

The best scenes are the final verbal battles between the unyielding, merciless Lane and the increasingly pleading and desperate Glass. There’s quite a lot of tension between the two, nicely complicated by our initial sympathies for Glass and previous suspicion of Lane.

©Chris Knipp 2003

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