Below Radar: Shattered Glass

Posted on 23 April 2009 by HansKlopek

Hello kids. Hans here with another installment in the epic Below Radar series.

glass-posterI suppose I will indulge my colleagues’ recentĀ State of Play-motivated fascination with the journalism film, tackling a movie that Shep mentioned in his top five yesterday, Shattered Glass.

Let me first throw in my two cents and say that I really enjoyed State of Play. I started out cold on it, as most of what happened in the first thirty to forty five minutes was so standard and predictable. A lot of the character set up stuff was awkwardly done and frustratingly run-of-the-mill. When the movie finally got swept away on the wave of its plot though, it really picked up momentum and brought you in. The last hour and a half or so feels like the adrenaline-charged pursuit of a really tough story, and the way the film absorbs the viewer represents something special about the newspaperman as hero; he has no guns, no weapons, no legal obligation to unravel the enigma…only his tape recorder, his wits, and the desire to trump the competition or just to hold onto his job. He isn’t an action hero on a conventional level–he shakes and stammers through dangerous situations, and reacts in ways that we might see ourselves reacting.

This vulnerability is something that Billy Ray, one of the co-writers of State of Play, explores beautifully in 2003′s Shattered Glass, a film where the journalist hero finds himself in dangerous situations that are the product of his own dishonesty. The film is based on a Vanity Fair article by Buss Bissinger that chronicled the fall of famed journalist Stephen Glass, who came to fame in the late 90s with a series of amazing pieces appearing in publications like The New Republic and Rolling Stone. It was a shame to find out that Glass had either fabricated or entirely made up half of the articles he published.

I’m one of those writers who really wants to go into journalism (though a movie like State of Play asserts, accurately, how rough a state the profession is in) and Shattered Glass is an important cautionary tale for anyone like me especially now; with jobs dwindling and hundreds of experienced writers wandering the country looking for work, there is even more of a pressure to distinguish yourself as an interesting writer with interesting stories to tell. What Ray’s film conveys is the importance of pursuing your publication’s glory rather than your own, as we see Glass ravage the reputation of The New Republic, an office culture where he started out a god only to become a dog.

But Ray’s film makes it difficult to place him in either of those categories. Hayden Christensen plays him as a mousy, shattered-glass-31fragile guy, like that little brother you could never bring yourself to torment because you sensed his impending emotional breakdown. He is a rich kid who senses his parents’ disapproval toward journalism, and works himself into the ground as he stays on as a staff writer for TNR but also attends law school. Ray’s film doesn’t wax psychologically about Glass’s motivations, but Christensen plays the character so vividly that it is easy to understand the satisfaction he finds in having his stories accepted so enthusiastically–after making an amazing pitch at a staff meeting, he will modestly puncuate things with “I’ll probably just forget it,” knowing he has beaten the rest of the room.

But his narcissim is buried underneath intense vulnerability which makes him like a puppy in the eyes of his fellow staffers–two of them, Caitlin Avery (Chloe Sevigny) and Amy Brand (Melanie Lynskey), dote on Glass like sisters, worrying that he is working too hard and not taking enough credit for his work. Ray, a former journalist, obviously understands the politics of this environment–his wide open newsroom becomes like a high school cafeteria where allegiances are pledged and just as quickly eschewed. TNR has recently undergone a change of editor, with the charismatic Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) having been replaced by the tough Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). Glass and his comrades retain their loyalty to Kelly, but Lane soon has bigger problems to deal with, as he burrows headfirst into Glass’s dishonesty.

Problems begin to arise when Glass breaks an internet-related story and Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), an online journalist for Forbes Digital Tool, starts investigating its accuracy. When he comes back to his editors with questions, they immediately contact Lane who asks Glass to clarify for them. As details are off and sources don’t seem to exist, Glass and Lane see the walls closing in; there is an agonizing sequence where they go to the hotel which Glass says played host to a controversial political rally. As the scene wears on, Lane uncovers faulty detail after faulty detail until Glass is as far in the corner as he can be.

Even in disgrace though, Glass is hard to despise–”are you mad at me?” he asks throughout to anyone who questions him, affecting childishness as a defense. Watching the film, it is hard not to sympathize with the character who agonizingly watches his star fall–Christensen plays him so correctly that, when the wheel goes round and we see the tears fall, you actually feel for this guy who tried to ride the fastlane to greatness and gave up his integrity along the way.

sarsgaard-and-glassWhile we feel sympathetic, Ray is perceptive to set up Glass’s narcissism; he lets the story unfold against fantasy sequences of Glass visiting his old high school, the subject of hero worship from young, would-be journalists, soaking in acclaim he has so long enjoyed. These scenes help us understand Glass’s need for attention and satisfaction, and also compound the sorrow of his fall.

This was Ray’s first film (his next, Breach, was also quite good) and it represents the arrival of a great talent. Some of his best decisions were in casting the film: Sevigny, Lynskey, and Zahn are all quite excellent and credible as newsroom jockeys. Azaria, handsome and easy, is perfect as the charismatic newsman. And though Christensen is the lead, Sarsgaard has the key performance; as the investigator of Glass’s dishonesty, he has to be in some ways outraged but not so much that we start rooting for Glass not to get caught. He walks the line perfectly and creates a character that is so single-minded and intelligent that he, in some ways, becomes the hero of the film’s later stages–there is satisfaction blended with pain when Sarsgaard starts serving down notes of justice upon Glass.

All told, this is a great film about journalism. It understands the world and what drives certain people to cut corners in order to distinguish themselves. But it also bristles with an energy and excitement of filmmaking that makes it visually interesting and a pleasure to watch. It is surprising to me that there are not more films about journalism, particulary ones like State of Play, where the demons of injustice are vanquished by the typing of a story and the click of SEND button. Maybe these heroes are just a little too conventional, but the world they exist in is ceaselessly interesting–State of Play finds a journalist fighting to reconcile a personal code with a professional one. Shattered Glass finds one that only considers the personal benefits of a lie.                           

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