I saw a one-man show here at the Edinburgh Fringe this year where the performer was portraying Stephen Glass confessing his sins to a group therapy session. To say it was an odd hour at the theatre would be putting it mildly. On the plus side though, it reminded me of this flick that I had read some good things about when it was released back in 2003. What more excuse do I need?
Lies, damned lies, and bullshit.
Stephen Glass is the youngest writer at the prestigious New Republic magazine in Washington D.C. He was famous for his witty and subversive stories, including an exposé of a Young Republicans convention, where the delegates spent the whole time in a suite upstairs with drugs, hookers and a reporter. In 1998, his story about a young hacker being hired by the company he broke into, receives some attention when some of his sources seem difficult to track down. Eventually he admits the shocking truth: the story (and many others) are entirely fabricated.
Shattered Glass started life as an piece in Vanity Fair in September 1998 written by Buzz Bissinger, the man behind the book that became Friday Night Lights, both the movie – one of the finest high school films ever made, incidentally – and the critically-acclaimed TV series. His article covered a lot of ground from Glass’ life prior to The New Republic and examined what exactly was it that made Glass do these things. In constructing an engaging screenplay, writer-director Billy Ray has instead focussed on the brief period surrounding the “Hack Heaven” story that led to Steve’s downfall. The result is a gripping true-life story of a fantasist at the centre of the rarefied world of elite news magazines.
Stephen Glass is the role Hayden Christensen played between stints in a galaxy far. far away and, oddly enough, it is the same character traits he was lambasted for as Anakin that make his performance here so good. His Glass presents himself as a simpering little boy in a grown-up’s world; a twenty-four year old who is starting law school because his parents won’t let him be a journalist any more. This artificial self-deprecation and eagerness to please is seen as a welcome change from the default arrogance he perceives in others in his line of work. This behaviour also brings out the mothering instinct in his female colleagues, who rally to his defence and seem to rationalise his deliberate acts of betrayal and invention as an innocent mistake when his fictions first begin to unravel. As much as you might want to punch him, there is no denying that it is an excellent performance from an actor many had dismissed.
Despite being the title character of the film as well as the unreliable (you think?) narrator, Stephen Glass is not in fact the protagonist of the movie; that honour belongs to his editor Chuck Lane, played with quiet dignity by Peter Sarsgaard. It is his determination to find out the truth about Glass that drives the story, after having his suspicions raised by some awkward questions from a rival publication looking to do their own follow-up piece.
As an experienced screenwriter but first-time director, Billy Ray has done an excellent job of recreating the buzzing, fast-paced world these people inhabit. He understands that the characters are the story, and manages to avoid the main pitfall of films about journalism: no extended montages of people sitting at their keyboards, with or without any rousing musical interlude.
The narration he has put together for Glass hints at the cold, calculating mind required to carry out a deception of this magnitude but he never falls into the trap of trotting out some cod-psychology diagnosis for what motivated him in the first place. There is no Psychoesque closing monologue listing all of his mental issues. Anyone who watches Dexter could probably point out some instances of possible sociopathic behaviour, but viewers are credited with enough intelligence to draw their own conclusions about that.
This is the best film about print journalists that I have seen since All The President’s Men. Is it a coincidence that they are both true stories?
You can read Buzz Bissinger’s original Vanity Fair article here. It’s really very good.