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7.11.03

Putting Together the Pieces of "Shattered Glass"

The opening scene of Shattered Glass starts with its protagonist, Stephen Glass, giving a speech to a classroom of mostly young girls about the standards and practices of being a journalist at the tony publication The New Republic. ("The only in-flight magazine on Airforce One" is their pedigree.) Glass, portrayed here by Hayden Christensen, glows with boyish reluctance and pride as he pontificates to these swooners about the difficulties of getting your name in print. It's not only Glass who's aglow but the entire scene. A wash of white light bathes the school room and one half-expects one of his devotees to bat their eyes with the words "I love you" written on her lids. The scene is so serene and ideal that its effect is quite contrary to its setting. You know something is wrong. That beyond Glass's young republican exterior (the very image he will lambast in his articles later) and dreamy, reluctant pride is a person who needs this. You suspect somewhere in that sheen is a slight crack so fine and delicate, yet deep, that it cannot be traced yet it has the ability to break the whole into pieces.

This scene is the closest the film comes to giving any definition to writer Stephen Glass's past or motivations for the future and yet it's all one needs to understand him. There's no secret to the fact that Glass was discovered late into his time as a writer with the The New Republic to have fabricated some or all of the content of his articles. Unlike most, I had the distinct advantage of not knowing the details of Glass's life or times at The New Republic. The movie, based on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger (Shattered Glass, September 1998), has no interest in linear explanations or by-rote biopic "flashbacks" where we see young Stephen telling his parents that he DID NOT chop down that cherry tree. The film seems far more interested in the notion of integrity and its costs. The quiet desperation of those who seem to suffer for their values and those who step over them on their way to the top. Quite simply, championing substance over style, which these days seems like a revolutionary act.

Director Billy Ray, who wrote and directed the picture, starts with his Glass as a nerdy, gratingly nice boy-wonder who just wants to be everyone's friend. His endearing traits are things like offering colleagues gum, asking if they'd come to a 'monopoly party', and asking anyone with a furrowed brow if "they're mad at him?" We see from the start that Glass isn't putting out fires (yet), but rather, squelching embers before they even catch hold. Yet, so effective are these slight-of-hand manipulations, that even when his lies flare up most of the people around Glass smell the smoke but can't see the flame. Juxtaposed with Stephen is Chuck Lane, a fellow journalist and soon-to-be editor, who bears all the weight of adulthood and responsibility. Chuck (played with masterful restraint by Peter Sarsgaard) is a paternal authority figure and not a barrel of laughs. Chuck, you see, writes stiff, humorless articles on Gabriel García Márquez while Stephen continually lights up the conference room with tales of celebrity hackers and drug-abusing politico conventions. The only problem is that not only are Stephen's stories untrue but the only source material for the fact checkers are himself.

It's a testament to Ray and his actors that the film never comes off as preachy or as a two-dimensional morality tale. Besides similarities to All The President's Men (1976) and The Insider (1999) this film also bears a certain resemblance to Quiz Show (1994). Both Fiennes' Van Doren and Christensen's Glass teeter upon the same slope of dissatisfaction that ability and accomplishment have wrought. The difference here being Van Doren's regret and apology for his actions and Glass's constant descent into further lies and denial. His only regret seems to be the fact that he was caught. One of the film's greatest assets is in Christensen who is a delight to watch squirming and wriggling into any nook and groove of 'reality', no matter how desperate, to keep his version of the story alive.

It is the very word reality that seems to be pressing at the core of the entertaiment industry and makes this film so timely. I found it quite ironic that, on the day I went to the screening of Shattered Glass, on the front page of The Daily Variety was the news that CBS was pulling its television biopic "The Reagans" after much criticism of its accuracy. It seems after The Insider that CBS is suddenly very sensitive about its journalistic integrity when transferring the news via such age-old vehicles of truth like the movie-of-the-week. One wonders when Walmart will be selling copies of Oliver Stone's JFK: The Studio Cut or NIXON: The Version We Can All Agree On. With the airwaves awash with 'reality shows' that bear less resemblance to reality than a typical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the recent Jayson Blair debacle at the New York Times it seems the culture is in a quandry. The question being posited seems to be whether life in the Matrix is actually better if we just don't know or care if it's true or not. This film takes the position that it does.

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