Shattered Glass (12A)

The great pretender
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The Independent Culture

The American political magazine The New Republic is talked of so reverently in the new movie Shattered Glass you'd think it was published on tablets of stone rather than paper. We're told it's read by "people who matter" - lawyers and politicians, apparently - and we're reminded, twice, that it's "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One". (A bit of a liability these days, you'd think). It's so important, in fact, that it doesn't even deign to feature photographs, or, in all likelihood, jokes. Its team of bright young writers and editors hold regular meetings where they pitch ideas to one another and thus help set the political agenda, or at least get their own name into print.

The American political magazine The New Republic is talked of so reverently in the new movie Shattered Glass you'd think it was published on tablets of stone rather than paper. We're told it's read by "people who matter" - lawyers and politicians, apparently - and we're reminded, twice, that it's "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One". (A bit of a liability these days, you'd think). It's so important, in fact, that it doesn't even deign to feature photographs, or, in all likelihood, jokes. Its team of bright young writers and editors hold regular meetings where they pitch ideas to one another and thus help set the political agenda, or at least get their own name into print.

One such eager beaver is Stephen Glass, a 24-year-old journalist who rose to prominence, and thence notoriety, in the late 1990s. Glass is an exemplary "young man in a hurry", though he's smart enough to realise that his ambition is best served beneath a disguise of self-effacement and pleasantness. As played by Hayden Christensen, he's always ready with smooth-tongued flattery, eyes innocently beaming behind his spectacles; he's been so stealthy that nobody in the office has twigged just what a crawler he is, and when he pitches his story ideas he always seems to get approving chuckles and smiles. The movies haven't witnessed an operator this slippery since Tony Curtis's press agent in Sweet Smell of Success.

But there's something else his colleagues don't know about Glass. His editor and mentor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) briefly suspects it when certain details of a story Glass files about a young conservatives' convention don't ring true. Suspicion dies down after Kelly is sacked, but revives again when another Glass story, about computer hackers, is investigated by a reporter for an online magazine called Forbes Digital Tool. And as if that publication's name isn't amazing enough, the reporter in question is played by Steve Zahn, crown prince of goofballs and someone who wouldn't know a digital tool if it jumped on to his desk. No matter: Zahn's doughty truffling brings to light multiple inconsistencies in the hacker story, and warns The Republic's new editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), that Glass has been up to no good.

Writer-director Billy Ray shrewdly allows the doubts to accumulate. At first it appears that Glass may have been duped by his sources, a hazard any decent journalist might encounter. His apologetic reflex - "Are you mad at me?" he keeps asking - has a little-boy-lost vulnerability that seems to disarm his superiors. But gradually the truth is gouged out: Glass has not only fabricated large chunks of the story, he has then tried to cover up his lies by faking business cards and websites. As the net begins to close, you may find it impossible to suppress your delight at Glass's loss of composure. Why? Perhaps because you won't recall being quite so irritated by anyone, in any movie, ever. This isn't simply to do with his being a liar, or a hypocrite (he ticks off another staffer for using unsubstantiated quotes); one might even have admired his chutzpah in stringing so many people along. But Glass clings to the role of victim as piteously as a shipwrecked sailor to driftwood; he wheedles and whines, begging everyone to feel sorry for him as he squirms away from responsibility. "I didn't do anything wrong, Chuck," he pleads. "I really wish you'd stop saying that," replies Chuck, and I know exactly how he felt.

Satisfying as his downfall is, however, a question still hangs in the air: what is the point of this movie? Stephen Glass was a pathological liar who got found out, and fired. He made a monkey of his employers (27 of his 41 stories were revealed to be either wholly or partially made up) and tarnished the reputation of a magazine. But he didn't, as far as one can tell, lose anybody else their job. If a reporter in this country were found guilty of such falsehoods, few would be surprised: we know our tabloid press too well. In America, on the other hand, journalism still bears the ensign of integrity, and that the likes of Glass and Jayson Blair, who similarly hoodwinked The New York Times, should undermine it is beyond the pale, and for certain New Republic staffers, beyond belief: one of them, played by Chloë Sevigny, rails against Chuck for his supposed persecution of her poor friend Stephen. Again, the way Chuck coolly sets her straight ("It's indefensible. Don't you know that?") is immensely cheering, but not for the reason the film believes. The press notes acclaim the editor for protecting the magazine and, get this, "the sanctity of journalism itself". Oh phooey. The reason the heart thrills to Chuck's denunciation (superbly played, incidentally, by Sarsgaard) is that it's a comeuppance for a creep, and a self-pitying creep at that.

Why did he do it? Nobody seems to know, least of all Glass. Perhaps the pressure of work got too much for him. Perhaps knowing that he could get away with faking a story created its own unmanageable appetite. A concluding note informs us that Glass recently published a novel, The Fabulist, about a young journalist who tricks a magazine into publishing stories he has wholly or partially made up. Well, too much to expect that Glass should feel a sense of shame for what he did. But you wonder why he didn't write the novel in the first place and save everyone a lot of trouble.

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