Shattered Glass

(Billy Ray, USA, 2003)


Contemporary, fact-based dramas – especially if they concern crises that rock mighty institutions of multinational capital, such as insider trading – are often dreary affairs.

If they condemn themselves to recounting a rollicking tale without taking a clear political line, they often end up as wishy-washy morality tales. They might vaguely speak out against excesses of greed or ambition, but they never really knock or even attempt to analyse the underlying social system.

Writer-director Billy Ray's Shattered Glass, however, manages to be a gripping account of the plagiarism crisis that rocked the American magazine The New Republic in the mid 1990s. Young journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) managed to turn in an alarmingly high number of stories that were pure fabrications. The film never attempts to cleanly label him as sick, but it is clear that Glass is a compulsive liar and fabulist on par with the anti-hero of Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002).

The film tries to sketch not just the mechanics of Glass' deception – which alone make this film a gripping mystery-thriller – but the peculiar conditions that allowed it to happen.

There is, firstly, a psychological factor. Glass was an astonishing glad-hander and seducer, particularly adept at stirring nurturing, maternal feelings in the normally tough women of his profession. Some of the best moments of the story involve the blind faith that news editor Caitlin (Chloe Sevigny) invests in him, and the war she pitches against chief editor Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard) on Stephen's behalf.

Then there is a more historical factor. The dawning infotainment era in journalism in a sense created a creature like Glass, all too ready to dazzle readers and colleagues alike with humour and glitz. The scenes in which Stephen wins over his assembled colleagues with gags and flagrant name-dropping strain credulity somewhat, but the general point is well-taken.

If the film is reticent on any issue, it is the whole ethos of rigorous fact-checking on which high-end American journalism rests its regal reputation. Can this code really have been in force during the years of Glass' fraudulent success? The film keeps asserting so, but it's hard to believe – and the long introductory section involving a previous editor, Michael (Hank Azaria), and his indulgence of Glass's mistakes, does not quite succeed in suspending our disbelief.

Both the success and limitation of Shattered Glass are due to the dramatic viewpoint it takes. In order to cast out Glass as an absolute evil, it has to nominate a heroic redeemer to save the day. He arrives in the form of Chuck, whose conscience and determination, against all opposition, drive the latter part of the narrative.

Finally, Shattered Glass glamourises Chuck just a little too much. But, by the same token, the lengths to which it goes to demonise its anti-hero are entirely enjoyable.

The device that frames the story, which seems clumsy at first, grows more ambiguous as it rolls along: Glass addressing a class of journalism students, imparting the tricks of the trade. The irony that this part of the film finally reaches is wholly satisfying in its bleakness.

© Adrian Martin February 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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