A fabulist's last hurrah 

A review of Shattered Glass

click to enlarge Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass.
  • Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass.

Shattered Glass (PG-13)
Lions Gate

When the young and meritorious fall from grace, their stories often contain all the hallmarks of a classic American tragedy. Such is the case with director Billy Ray's Shattered Glass, a tale of ambition, success and deceit set in the world of magazine journalism.

There are a hundred different reasons why the media goes into a solipsistic feeding frenzy over disgraced sons like The New Republic's Stephen Glass. In 1998, Glass was exposed for manufacturing 27 stories for a publication that bills itself as "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One."

Of course, the Glass fiasco is about more than schadenfreude. At 25, the young writer managed to pull the wool over the eyes of some of the most revered figures in print journalism, like esteemed editor Michael Kelly who went on to helm The Atlantic until he was killed while working in Iraq this spring.

By way of comparison, Glass's brother in bullcrap, Jayson Blair, fudged a West Virginia landscape and some quotes for the New York Times. A big deal given the gray lady's stature as "the paper of record," but hardly a match for the fiction of Glass who fabricated people, companies and conventions for a staff of savvy writers who lapped it up with a spoon.

Shattered Glass starts as a portrait of the fabulist as a journalistic rock star, played as a self-effacing nebbish by Hayden Christensen. Glass prances around the magazine's office in socks, colleagues soliciting his advice on their work while Boy Wonder's phone beckons with editors from The Atlantic and Harper's -- which he dismisses to envious onlookers, "It's probably just nothing."

But after the publication of his story on a hacker convention, a reporter from Forbes Digital (Steve Zahn) discovers that none of Glass's sources check out.

And so begins the shattering.

At the same time, The New Republic undergoes a regime change in which its revered editor, Kelly (Hank Azaria), is replaced by the lesser-loved Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). It's here that the story's focus switches to Lane and his unenviable job of firing the magazine's rising star in the face of a protective and incredulous staff.

The problem with Shattered Glass is that it ignores the most compelling part of the story, which is, er, Stephen Glass and his pathology of moxie, ambition and deceit. Even if he only peddled fiction, Glass was a talented storyteller. Whatever made him think he could continue his charade is never explored beyond fleeting references to "family pressures."

This doesn't make Shattered Glass a bad film. Witnessing someone young and vulnerable get a deservedly harsh dose of comeuppance is compellingly painful. Ray does a wonderful job of reeling the audience in with the tension of impending doom.

A flaw in Christensen's performance is that TNR's golden boy is insufficiently rendered before the fall. Here was the darling of the editorial meetings who continually astonished with his scoop du jour. But Christensen is far too removed and self-effacing to be viable. There's no evidence of the charisma and confidence required to stake out and maintain such a high perch.

Ray chose a story about doing the right thing through the person of Chuck Lane. However, the car wreck curiosity of a Stephen Glass (or a Jayson Blair or Janet Cooke) is the exact opposite. It's the guts, the stupidity and the complex allure of doing the wrong thing that fascinate.

The tragedy of journalistic exile is that with the exception of a certain butt-boiled OxyContin addict, once you're revealed as a fraud you don't get a second chance. As Burt Lancaster tells the ambition-blind Tony Curtis in another film about poisoned pens: "You're dead, son; get yourself buried."

But instead of letting Glass get buried, Simon and Schuster awarded him a book deal for his mea culpa novel, The Fabulist, which was released to critical dismay this spring. Apparently it's not selling, which is probably the best thing that's happened to American journalism all year.

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