[box cover]

Shattered Glass

Lions Gate Home Entertainment

Starring Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard,
Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn, and Hank Azaria

Written and directed by Billy Ray


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Review by D.K. Holm                    


Here's the most surprising aspect of the Stephen Glass affair: that more journalists haven't been caught out making up stories and faking quotes.

Glass, who worked for the New Republic in the late 1990s, was but one of a spate of journalistic con people in recent memory, from Janet Cooke in 1980 to the Boston Globe's Mike Barnicle, with Glass followed close upon by the New York Times's Jayson Blair and then Rick Bragg (in his memoir, Blair hints that there is yet another prominent Times person who has faked stories). Just in 2004 alone there have been numerous charges of plagiarism: the Jack Kelley case at USA Today, the Uli Schmetzer case at the Chicago Tribune, the Bart Ripp case at the Tacoma News Tribune, and the Khalil Abdullah case at The Macon Telegraph. Just before that, in 2003, there were plagiarism charges against Charlie LeDuff and Bernard Weinraub at The New York Times, and Catherine Fitzpatrick at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

But journalistic fraud (like poll booth fraud) goes back decades. For ideological reasons the British journalist Claud Cockburn occasionally made up reports favorable to radical causes. An anonymous writer for Scanlan's magazine in the early '70s revealed that Newsweek writers at that time often made up quotes or used friends as anonymous "sources."

Closer to home, a colleague at a regional "alternative" paper once told this reviewer that a feature profile he had written of some extreme sports enthusiasts on the west coast was wholly invented. It was a story that actually won this writer his job at the paper. He evinced absolutely no shame about his "creativity." After all, it had helped his career. As far as I know the paper's owners never learned about his perfidy.

A deficient sense of shame may well be the key to the puzzle behind the motivation of the Cookes and Glasses of the world. Bereft of a moral code, these people find that expediency puts paid to ethics. But it is also possible that fakery is so common in the press that Cooke and Glass and Blair merely had to look around them to find affirmation that forgery is a common practice, even rewarded (for a time, anyway). After all, one of Glass's colleagues at the New Republic was Ruth Shalit, who admitted plagiarizing other publications several times in 1995.

How did it happen? As the movie Glass hints to a schoolroom full of students, having been a fact checker he was familiar with the holes in the process. It's called fact checking, not fraud checking (as writer-director Billy Ray says on the audio commentary track). That is, there is the implicit assumption that what the reporter presents to the editors is well intended. Glass could see that as long as you had a notebook full of observations and notes and figures the assumption would be that you had really attended a meeting, a conference, a convention. Glass also attempted to exploit some of the unintended ramifications of the Internet, that is, anonymity, with blind e-mail address and fake websites (Blair was later to be much more successful at exploiting the WWW). Meanwhile, New Republic editor Charles Lane notes that as a "reporter," Glass traded in stereotypes that flattered the presumptions and biases of the supposedly liberal readers.

What's also surprising about the Glass case is that it has resulted in a pretty good movie (meanwhile, Glass has given his own version of these events in a recently published novel called The Fabulist; how paradoxical that a reporter who once made up stories now writes a novel to convey actual events).

*          *          *

Stephen Glass was the scion of a wealthy family. He went to one of the best colleges. He was the editor of his school paper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, widely considered one of the best college papers and a breeding ground for reporters (but also a paper where a natural segregation separated work study students who could only dedicate a few hours a week to the paper, and rich kids, like Glass, who could devote up to 60 hours a week and thus become elite insiders). Glass ended up working at the New Republic, then a neo-Liberal publication with an influence far in excess of its circulation.

There, Glass dazzles his editors, first the late Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), then his replacement Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). Glass apparently gave good meetings, his blend of modesty and arrogance just the right recipe to woo his potential staff competitors. At TNR, Glass was famous for his wacky stories, such as an account of a hackers' convention where a teen blackmails a major computer company into giving him a job, or his report of a convention selling jokey Monica Lewinsky memorabilia. Glass had the support of various receptionists and fact checkers at the company (Chloe Sevigny among them, though her character seems to be a composite based on partially on Glass's colleague and occasional co-writer, Jonathan Chait). Charming them with his puppy dog neediness, he forged loyalty among the lower ranks. That helped stave off jealousy among them, because meanwhile Glass was hustling other publications like hell, and his freelance work was appearing in George, Rolling Stone, Harper's, Policy Review, Slate.com, and TheStreet.com.

When publisher Marty Peretz replaced Kelly with Lane he inadvertently spared Glass from early exposure. Kelly was almost on to Glass, but backed down when a cursory check appeared to refute charges of inaccuracy. Later, Adam L. Penenberg (Steve Zahn), a reporter at the Web version of Fortune, attempted to follow-up on Glass's hacker story, but he found an empty trail. At first the generous view was that Glass had been duped by the hackers. But gradually it dawns on Lane that Glass is a prevaricator of the first order. Sevigny's character attempts to defend him, and even Lane has sympathy for him for a while, both viewing Glass as a troubled kid with a great future ahead of him. But soon the tide changes.

Shattered Glass is a straightforward account of the Glass case, visually not much more elevated from the level of a TV movie of the week, but blessed with outstanding performances from an excellent cast (by the way, shouldn't the movie be titled Shattering Glass, since the faker who has wormed his way into the heart of journalism is the only one who survives without illusions and faith destroyed?) Writer and director Billy Ray (who also wrote the scripts for Color of Night and Hart's War) does, however, use a clever framing device, one that evaporates significantly along with Glass's career. (Incidentally, Shattered Glass is produced by the company owned by Tom Cruise, who perhaps has plenty of reasons to mount a story that exposes the press's propensity for prevarication.)

Peter Sarsgaard and Hank Azaria are especially good at being quiet but firm editors, garbed in the traditional journalist uniform of khakis and dress shirts, tie askew. And after demonlover and Dogville, Sevigny continues to impress with her fierce confidence on screen. The only hole in the film lies right at its heart, with Hayden Christensen, temporarily dropping the lightsaber for a quill. On the one hand he has a bit of the old Stephen Boyd in him, another bad actor with an odd accent and what appears to be an extraterrestrial's notion of how to speak English; on the other, his callowness fits in with the cunning earnestness that Glass apparently manifested within the hallowed Republic offices.

*          *          *

Lions Gate's DVD release of Shattered Glass comes in a fine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1). Audio is a serviceable DD 5.1. Extras consist of an audio commentary track with writer-director Ray and the real life Charles Lane. Also on hand is the "60 Minutes" segment with the fey and still-earnest Glass, aired around the time his novelization of events was published.

In the audio track, Lane praises Ray for getting so many of the details right (despite the fact that the film was shot in Montreal), such as the observation that Glass would walk around the New Republic offices in his stocking feet. Lane is careful to describe what really went through his mind, and discriminate between what really happened in certain key scenes and what the film can present (despite the necessary condensations of filmmaker Shattered Glass seems to be amazingly accurate). They have a solid camaraderie and it's one of the more interesting audio tracks, on an important topic that transcends the movie it's about.

In the "60 Minutes" profile, Steve Kroft not only interviews Glass, but also Lane and another senior editor, Leon Weiseltier (the man Gore Vidal once rated as having "very important hair"). To Kroft, Glass allows as how he was addicted to the excitement of pitching stories at meetings and reveled in the attention. But Glass's habit of asking everyone, "Are you mad at me?" hinted at his hidden, larger awareness that he was doing something wrong. From both the CBS story and Shattered Glass, the ex-journalist comes across as a very recognizable figure to those who have spent any time in a newsroom: the needy, treacherous manipulator who is a master of office politics. Today, Lane tells Kroft, if Stephen Glass told him the sun was shining he would verify it with two independent sources.

— D.K. Holm



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