I don’t know how much people outside the world of journalism remember Stephen Glass. In 1998, he was fired from The New Republic magazine for committing some major ethical violations, to put it mildly. “Shattered Glass,” the engrossing new film that tells the story, works best if you don’t recall the scandal at all. The surprises are nicer, and the drama is deeper, if you take Stephen Glass for what he appears to be.
Played here by Hayden Christensen, Glass is a baby-faced 24-year-old with a strong, even pathological need to be liked. He is humble and self-effacing, and he remembers details about his co-workers so that he can endear himself to them later. He’s not smarmy or unctuous about it, though; he seems genuinely eager to please. The thing he asks most often, at the slightest sign of trouble, is, “Are you mad at me?”
As a journalist, Glass is first-rate. He gets fantastic stories about amazing people and writes them with color and flair. He is beloved of his colleagues and editors.
But this is a film in which good guys seem like bad guys, and vice versa. Glass’ first editor, the fatherly Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), is dismissed and replaced by Glass’ colleague, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). Chuck is humorless and perhaps envious of Glass’ success. The staff loved Kelly; they are not fans of Lane. So when he begins to question some of Glass’ reporting, he has little support from the troops.
I won’t say more about the specifics of the film so that those who don’t recall the case can more fully enjoy seeing it unfold, seeing masks removed, and seeing the audacity and boldness of youth. Christensen’s performance is strong, letting his youthfulness work to his advantage. Glass is a kid in a grown-up world, and Christensen fits the part to a tee. You can’t not be charmed by him, and as things begin to unravel, and as he apologizes for one lie by telling another, your stomach will churn along with his. (This is especially true if you, too, have recently been called on the carpet by an angry editor.)
Peter Sarsgaard is also very good in a difficult role, that of the antagonist with noble intentions. Steve Zahn lends comedy, as always, as a writer for an online publication who blows the whistle on Glass.
Part of me would like to have seen the film go further than it does in exploring Glass’ frame of mind, to explain not just how he did what he did, but why. But leaving some stones unturned allows for more discussion after the film has ended, and I applaud writer/director Billy Ray (the writer of “Hart’s War” and “Volcano,” making his directorial debut) for keeping the pace swift and the details relevant. Very little of the film takes place outside of the hectic but family-like atmosphere of the New Republic office, and the film feels focused and well-defined because of it. It’s not about journalism in general (though it touches on the way its practiced modernly), or about one man’s entire life. It’s about what one man did with his career, and if the reasons for it are not spelled out, they are at least compellingly implied. I think Ray’s purpose is not to suggest that some journalists are appalling, but to suggest that some of them are human, which might be even more difficult to believe.
B+ (1 hr., 35 min.; )