`Shattered' picture of journalism

November 21, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Shattered Glass traces the giddy rise and gaudy fall of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), who achieved infamy in the scandal-charged journalistic world of the last decade by penning dozens of purportedly factual articles for The New Republic that turned out to be pure or partial fiction.

While homing in on Glass, the movie exposes the drift of an entire media culture that lusts for youth and "freshness" (i.e., novelty) and desires to be entertained and entertaining at all costs.

Journalism has always been vulnerable to the excesses of arrested adolescents who seek attention with extreme styles and opinions or who yearn for the validation of escalating bylines and Page 1 scoops. In Shattered Glass, writer-director Billy Ray places the profession's Achilles' heel in the unlikely anatomy of an Ivy League nebbish - and in a setting that functions as an incubator for immature allegiances like hero worship.

During Glass' years on The New Republic (1995-1998), a small staff filled with twentysomethings faced editorial tumult that might have confused a crew of solid newsmen. "The emotional core to me," Ray has said, "is the story of the least popular kid in high school having to take on the most popular kid in high school."

But in fixing on that personal story, Ray actually breaks a bigger story: the way office politics affects the reporting, shaping and placement of news and opinion.

Making his name as a funny, colorful reporter under bold, writer-friendly editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), Glass, only 25 when his scandal broke, occupies a position between whiz kid and class clown in a milieu that's hungry for both. He offers an irreverent breeze in a wonkish world; it's obvious to his sober-sided cube-mates that he's riding a new wave of political journalism that demands attitude. Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), little more than a decade older but a veteran of social upheaval in Latin America and the Balkans, reacts with bemusement at Glass' supposed coups. But who's to say Lane's reticence doesn't include a hint of envy?

In the universe of this movie, if TNR owner Martin Peretz commands young editors and writers to circle every comma in an issue "rife with comma error" (useful discipline, I say), Kelly is sure to protest on behalf of overworked junior colleagues.

Glass does serve a vital function, too. He provides eccentric or viciously amusing stories to lighten the atmosphere, whether a first-person account of posing as an expert on ear-biting post-Mike Tyson (he says he talked his way into a 45-minute slot on a Kentucky radio talk show), or a reported tale of mindless young conservatives abusing alcohol, drugs and women during a convention. He's so emphatically modest that no one asks whether his yarns are too good to be true - even when one of them wonders where he finds these people.

Christensen's version of Glass slithers through interpersonal minefields; he's part bomb-sniffing dog and part chameleon. In one of the film's juiciest found ironies, he's an exacting fact-checker and supporter of other people's writing, with a real-life memory for the sort of intimate details he invents for made-up characters. And he's an ace at spouting the conventional idealism of post-Watergate investigative journalism. Filmmaker Ray's best inspiration is to frame the movie with a lecture Glass gives to a high school class at his alma mater in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb. He illustrates the need for assiduous note-taking and clarity with bogus accounts of putting together his fictitious creations. Ray's creative device offers the shred of psychological grounding we require to understand Glass' actions. This mentorly image is the one Glass hoped to create from whole cloth.

In a quote that Ray adapts for Glass' first-person narration, TNR's Margaret Talbot told Vanity Fair's Buzz Bissinger (who wrote the movie's source story, "Shattered Glass") that there are so many "braggarts and arrogant jerks" in journalism, a writer who "appears to have talent, is self-effacing to a fault and is sweet and solicitous" can be disarming.

As Glass, Christensen is canny enough to put across those virtues while instilling viewers with a building queasiness. And Ray shows his appetite for dramatic complexity - and his skill at it - in his suggestion that Glass appeals in the worst way to his colleagues' finest qualities. Kelly was an ideal editor for writers with integrity, but not for Glass, who knew how to charm a magazine staff and subvert its systems, from editing to fact-checking.

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