Shattered Glass

Just wanted to mention that I happened to watch Shattered Glass (IMDB) the other night when I was taking a break from working. Shattered stars Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, the New Republic writer who fabricated details in 27 of his 41 published stories. The low-budget feature (partially financed by Canadian grant money) uses a verite style to convey the Glass story, giving the film a sense of immediacy that seems crucial to the story and leading to comparisons with other investigative journalism features such as All the President’s Men.

There is some logic to the comparison. After all, for a significant section of the film, we follow web journalists Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) and Anide Fox (Rosario Dawson) as they begin to break the story, tearing apart a Glass article on hackers fact-by-fact. But Glass, written and directed by Billy Ray, lacks the earlier film’s self-righteousness.

The film is certainly critical of Glass’ actions and celebrates the ethical stance taken by NR editor Charles Lane when the charges against Glass were revealed to be true. However, instead of taking the obvious route and pushing for greater ethical scrutiny, Ray’s film seems to focus instead on office politics, especially the cult of personality associated with a charming figure such as Glass. During early sequences of the film, Glass is careful to compliment members of the office staff, including receptionists and assistants, and accepts praise for his work with what Roger Ebert calls “bashful narcissism.”

Gradually, after beloved editor Michael Kelly (who was later killed while covering the war in Iraq) leaves NR, the mood and focus of the film begins to shift, focusing in part on the Internet journalists who are bringing down the star writer for the major magazine and on the ethical dilemmas faced by the reticent new editor “Chuck” Lane. As the truth begins to emerge, a darker picture of Glass develops. He first plays the office against Lane, using his charm to breifly sustain himself against any kind of punishment; Glass’ colleagues speak on his behalf, telling Lane that Glass had been “working too hard,” that it was a misunderstanding. In this sense, the film seems to be more about office politics than about journalistic ethics, at least in my reading. At the same time, the film belongs to a very specific cultural moment when web journalism was finally being recognized as a legitimate news source.

The performances were all solid, especially Christensen as Glass, Peter Sarsgaard as Lane, and Hank Azaria as Michael Kelly. The only real “false” moment for me was when Lane walks into the staff meeting the morning after firing Glass to a round of applause (the scene is crosscut with Glass imagining–or maybe remembering–the applause of a high school journalism class), completely vindicated in his moral stance.

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