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SHATTERED GLASS (director/writer: Billy Ray; screenwriter: from a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger; cinematographer: Mandy Walker; editor: Jeffrey Ford; music: Mychael Danna; cast: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard (Charles Lane), Hank Azaria (Michael Kelly), Chloë Sevigny (Caitlin Avey), Melanie Lynskey (Amy Brand), Steve Zahn (Adam Penenberg), Rosario Dawson (Andie Fox), Cas Anvar (Kambiz), Ted Kotcheff (Marty Peretz); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Craig Baumgarten, Adam Merims, Tove Christensen and Gaye Hirsch; Lions Gate Films; 2003)
“Shattered Glass certainly stirred something up that needed cooking, but it never made it tasty enough to swallow whole.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Screenplay writer Billy Ray’s “Shattered Glass” is his debut as a director, in a film based on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger. Ray’s anti-hero protagonist is one of filmdom’s creepiest and snakiest and whiniest characters I can ever remember, but one who also is unappealing as a rascal. This true story is about the ambition and deceit of Stephen Glass, a fraudulent journalist, who rose to star feature writer with The New Republic in his tenure from 1995 to 1998. Glass also worked for many other magazines as a freelance reporter during this time period such as Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and George. Glass’ entertaining, supposedly, factual articles were well-received, until he was uncovered for cooking up some 27 out of his 41 articles. The fraud was broken by Forbes Digital Tool online investigative reporter Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), who ran a check on names and phone numbers for Glass’s Hacker Heaven article and nothing checked out. Why The New Republic couldn’t have done that thorough a check through its fact checkers is passed over with the insinuation that the staff was amused by their new bright star and never bothered to look deeper at the small lies he was over apologetic for when caught. If it weren’t for the Internet magazine running with the story, Glass might never have been detected for writings that include a bogus anti-Clinton article and one about young Republicans doing orgies.

Hayden Christensen, who was so wooden in Star Wars, got the smarmy part of Glass’s character down pat, in a remarkable performance playing the part of a self-serving and manipulative 24-year-old turd who is a pro at using people and pouring on the fake charm. He adds to his annoying personality traits by nervously clamoring when cornered “I didn’t do anything wrong!” or “Are you mad at me?”

The New Republic in 1998, when the film was set, had a staff of 15 whose median age was 26 and whose circulation was around 80,000 a week.

Glass’ con artist job on a respected political magazine dealing in opinions, one that is proud to be known as the “in-flight magazine of Air Force One,” is an unsettling story in a free society and demands to be heard. The ‘zines integrity failures also echo President Clinton’s betrayal to the electorate. But the filmmaker shuns going for the throat, as the movie turns into ‘just another corrupt white collar fraud story that reflects the ills of the Clinton era.’ Ray spreads the blame around for why the bogus articles were never detected by The New Republic, but never lays enough responsibility on the shoulders of the publication. The filmmaker points his fingers at the too willing colleagues who are easily manipulated by Glass’ seemingly flattering dependence on them (especially Chloë Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey who thoughtlessly protected Glass despite cracks showing in his reporting methods) and the bosses who were snowed by Glass’ desperate attempts to ingratiate himself with them as he threw their way articles he knew would please them, and finally the public who so easily accepted these fictionalized stories without any reservations. It seems everyone just wanted to believe these lies. The filmmaker goes very easy on the publication for letting lies get published and never turns his attention to other serious journalistic problems at this publication (or for that matter at other publications), such as not telling what they fully know about corrupt officials in order to protect their own skin or not going after a story because of a conflict of interest or because of political favoritism. But what it gets to about journalistic misconduct is alarming enough, even though it’s drily told.

The film is particularly timely since there are fair comparisons made between Mr. Glass’s misconduct and that of Jayson Blair, the reporter who was found this spring to have also plagiarized many of his articles in The New York Times. The feeling is that if it happened in such revered institutions of the press as these, it can happen anywhere and the caveat should be: “reader beware.”

Stephen Glass is shown as a self-absorbed lightweight, someone who is unconscionably possessed with himself. His downfall begins in 1998 when his supportive editor, Michael Kelly (Azaria), who treats him with more respect than such a slippery character deserves, gets axed because the publisher, Marty Peretz, is not pleased with an issue that has many comma errors. The new editor is the aloof Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) who was a colleague of Stephen’s and was not charmed by his stories. He is a little bit older and is portrayed as having a more honest nature though a more sour disposition. It should be said that Lane was a paid consultant to the movie and that he’s looked upon as a more sympathetic figure than others in the story. By the film’s third act it’s apparent the film is really about him. It should also be noted that before his death in the current Iraqi conflict, Michael Kelly had the chance to consult by phone with the actor playing him.

Glass is shown as a troubled young man who can never admit he was wrong and who is always after peer approval and praise from his superiors in his quest for personal glory. Glass is also pictured through an unfortunate framing device, where he imagines he revisits his high school class as a conquering hero reporter and lectures on what it takes to be a successful journalist. I found that too much to take without getting a little queasy about getting into his empty head.

That this sorry character after being fired went on to graduate law school and received a six-figure advance to write an unapologetic book about his experiences, perhaps tells us more about the society we have created than anything else. What this film reminds us — is that freedom of the press is not that much of a guarantee of getting the straight news if those dishing out the stories are suspect. The film’s only ray of hope is Charles Lane, who is now a journalist for The Washington Post. But his sanctimonious pose and restrained angry looks that shattered Glass, nevertheless, never fully convinced me that he was the real deal. He just might have painted a too pretty picture of himself as the savior of truth, as all parties are trying to once again cash in on their previous errors.

“Shattered Glass” certainly stirred something up that needed cooking, but it never made it tasty enough to swallow whole.

REVIEWED ON 11/22/2003 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”