Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Unsung!: Shattered Glass

In the words of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, “It’s not a lie if YOU believe it’s the truth.”

A few weeks ago, writing about Quiz Show, I droned on and on about the lack of moral rectitude in recent Hollywood films; we are now post-modern, post-narrative, and post-morality. It is an exciting time to be alive.

And by “exciting,” I mean “fucking scary.”

Here is another film that gives its audience treasures beyond entertainment. Shattered Glass is very entertaining, to be sure, but it has other business on its mind. It works as a first-rate detective story, a sobering parable about morality, and a wry contemplation of journalism in America.

The Plot In Brief: The film tells the true story of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), who fabricated dozens of stories during his brief tenure as a writer at The New Republic magazine. New editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) is on to him pretty quickly, but it takes the detective work of Forbes Online scribe Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) to uncover the full extent of Glass’s chicanery.

TANGENT: Recently I saw Joss Whedon’s new take on Much Ado About Nothing, which is mostly cast with actors best-known for supporting roles in endless, anonymous television series fodder. Yet the film demonstrates that, when given the chance to do SHAKESPEARE, most actors blossom – they rise to the challenge, they surprise us, they surprise themselves, and they show what they can make of quality material. It was something to see, and you should all see it, too.

The same can be said of the deep bench of character actors who do career-best work in Shattered Glass. There is not a bad performance in the bunch. Hayden Christensen proves he can do more than be mopey and angry and spout bad dialogue (as he did as Anakin in the Star Wars prequels -- My favorite of his miserable line readings occurs near the end of the third movie, when he shouts “I HATE YOU” like a sulky kindergarten girl. Being burned by lava.)  Here, Christensen’s pathetic, always-pleading, worm-like performance escalates into a portrait of genuine and frightening pathology. The way he over-pronounces words actually starts to grow on you.

Peter Sarsgaard is similarly well cast as Chuck Lane, the hero of the piece, doggedly pursuing Glass’s crazy duplicity. Steve Zahn shines in a rare dramatic performance. Rosario Dawson and Chloë Sevigny are both excellent in atypical roles. Hank Azaria turns up in one of the film’s best scenes as Glass’s former editor, who, upon hearing of Stephen’s troubles, immediately asks if he “cooked” a piece under Azaria’s watch.

Melanie Lynskey plays one of the film’s smaller roles, and it was only this morning that I realized that the actress playing the mousy Stephen Glass acolyte in Shattered Glass was the same Melanie Lynskey who is so uniformly excellent in every other film in which she has appeared, including Heavenly Creatures; Up In The Air; The Informant!; Leaves of Grass; Hello, I Must Be Going; and Seeking A Friend for the End of The World. Her cameo and subplot in Away We Go was the best thing in that film; she brought so much depth to her small role that it deserves a film of its own.

I must confess, I have not yet seen Lynskey’s work in the 2007 film, Itty Bitty Titty Committee.

Much of the praise for Shattered Glass should go to screenwriter and first-time director Billy Ray. The experience must have scarred him; he has only directed one other film since (2007’s Breach.) Ray somehow makes plagiarism both concrete and compelling on screen. He even manages to make phone calls exciting. (It is harder than it looks; try it some time.) Billy Ray is more famous for his screenwriting. He wrote the scripts for Color of Night, Hart’s War, Flightplan, State of Play, and more recently, The Hunger Games.

As we might expect in a film about writers, there is an amount of what I call “speechifying.” Here, though, it works because a) much of it comes from Editor Chuck Lane, who becomes the film’s default moral center; and b) the monologues are being delivered by Peter Sarsgaard, who is a gifted actor. The speechifying reaches its zenith when Lane upbraids Chloë Sevigny ‘s character, Caitlin Avey, for not sniffing out the subterfuge earlier:

“Caitlin, when this thing blows, there isn't going to be a magazine anymore [….] You can resent me, you can hate me, but come Monday morning, we're all going to have to answer for what we let happen here. We're all going to have an apology to make! Jesus Christ! Don't you have any idea how much shit we're about to eat? Every competitor we ever took a shot at, they're going to pounce. And they should. We blew it, Caitlin. He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed them all as fact. Because we found him… entertaining. It's indefensible. Don't you know that?”
Could it be that the sole reason I love this film is that it supports and vindicates one of the worst aspects of my own personality? I have a tendency to think the worst of people (just ask my thieving wife) and ascribe the worst motives to all the behavior going on around me. Shattered Glass presents us with a weasel who, through sheer personality and an intricate web of lies, manages to flim-flam everyone he knows. The film delights in its relentless investigation of just how awful this character is, just how soulless, and just how malignant. The film’s final revelations about the real Stephen Glass verify and confirm everything I have always believed about EVERYONE.

It is refreshing, really, to discover that one is finally RIGHT about something.

This is one of those films I find it impossible to ignore if I just come across it while channel surfing—I have seen it fifteen or sixteen times. It used to be a staple on some basic cable channel – maybe IFC. Where the hell did it go?

Shattered Glass
is available on DVD and for purchase on Amazon Instant Video. Amazon still sells the VHS tape for $3.00!


  1. Wow...a good Hayden Christensen performance?! So after I watch this I'll just need to punch a unicorn and my Bucket List will be complete!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. As a journalism student in college, I saw this movie multiple times, where I watched it in several classes, specifically those dealing with media ethics. It's quite good, and would make an interesting double feature with Quiz Show. I agree that it's one where I will stick with it if I happen to catch it on TV. And yes, Sol, Hayden Christensen is great in it! As JB said, it's full of top-notch performances.

  4. Great column JB. I'm a big fan of this movie too. It proves my theory that no matter how bad an actor is there is always one part that they are perfect for.

    Did you like Breach? I think that one (while not as good as Shattered Glass) is a bit unsung as well.

    1. I remember endlessly seeing the trailer for Breach before it came out, but I am not sure if I ever actually saw the film. I am going to check it out.

  5. Great choice. I also can't shut this one off if it happens to be on.

    One of the things I love about Glass' characterization is the way he hastily devises different levels of deception as the noose tightens. When caught in one lie, he'll fall back to another defensive line of falsehoods and another and another, which get increasingly ridiculous as he gets more and more desperate. From similar cases I've read about, it's a really accurate portrayal of the way pathological liars structure their web of deceptions.

    I also love how he'll perform an elaborate and entertaining pitch for a story at a staff meeting then suddenly comment that he probably won't write it, until someone in the room to encourage him to. It's almost as though he feels once they ask for it he has license to proceed with his fabrication.

    Another great documentary about a similar case is Forbidden Lie$, which investigates allegations that author Norma Khouri's supposedly non-fiction book describing the honor-killing of a woman in Jordan was completely fabricated.

    Also, why isn't Melanie Lynskey better-known?

  6. I enjoyed the film, overall, but there were still things that bugged me. (Not least was that I kept getting the New Republic confused with the National Review. Well, editorial was largely white and button-down. Seems odd that the Forbes team was more hippie-esque.)

    Afterwards I read a review of the film that held more of it should have been told from Glass' point of view, explaining his behavior rather than just presenting it. The critic developed this thesis at length, and it took me awhile to realize the film it reminded me of was Catch Me If You Can.

    Both films are based on non-fiction books, but CMIYC's book was by the con man and perforce sympathetic to him. Shattered Glass' book was done with input from the NR's editorial staff, leading to some glossing over. We're never actually shown a staff member approving a Glass story without vetting it, partly because that's a hard thing to show, but also because it puts the staff in a bad light.

    Just my two cents.

    1. Yes, one of the reasons that Chuck Lane comes across as a hero is that Chuck Lane was a paid technical advisor and consultant on the film...

  7. Got around to watching this one this weekend. Thanks for the tip.
    I was surprised at Christensen's performance. He was charming with an element of slime when he needed to be and VERY believable in his panic when it all came crashing down.
    While it was fairly light weight on this next point, I did like its focus on the editorial process of investigative journalism. Made the world much more believable than it otherwise would have been.

    Thank you JB.