Movies struggle with journalism.
Like computer coding, journalism is one of those subjects that movies return to again and again, but with no clear understanding of how to translate that action into cinematic energy. Movie journalists often double as private investigators, hunting down clues and dodging gunfire as they sprint from one SHOCKING REVELATION to the next. Little to no respect is ever given to the actual pain-staking, unglamorous effort that goes into researching and writing.
And unlike hackers, reporters don’t even get to be depicted as rad sex punks in our crappy movies.
Part of what made Spotlight such a rewarding watch (and such an unexpectedly powerful Best Picture win) was that co-writer/director Thomas McCarthy refused to short-change that process. Spotlight is an uncluttered and pointedly unsexy love letter to the meat-and-potatoes grind that is the accumulation of details in the service of assembling a story.
Shattered Glass, my pick for pick of the week, did not receive the box office or awards that Spotlight did, which is too bad as it is in every way (save maybe inherent emotional investment in the subject matter) the equal to that film. In drilling down to capture the intimacies of one scandal in all its slow-motion trainwreck glory, writer-director Billy Ray managed to make the first great modern film about the state of news media. Woefully underseen, Shattered Glass is the kind of unassuming, adult-minded masterpiece that people are always complaining don’t exist anymore.
It’s also *fun* in a way that films about ‘serious’ subjects so rarely get to be. For all of the exacting research that went into the film, and all the information that was packed in, Shattered Glass is a well-paced, energetic watch.
After all, being ‘fun’ is how Stephen Glass got away with his fraud for so long. Indeed, if Stephen Glass hadn’t been at the center of the sensational true life story, he probably would have written a helluva story out of it. Or made one up. Glass was a rising star with the New Republic, dazzling his co-workers and editors with his ‘reporting’ on stories like young Republicans committing drunken sex crimes at a convention, cops inventing special bladders to piss in on long stakeouts, or, in his biggest story ever, a pubescent hacker humiliating a massive corporation to such an extent that the company buys the kid off with Playboys and a trip to Disney in order to ensure his protection.
The stories dazzled the staff and readership of the New Republic (“the in-flight magazine of Air Force One” we are told, repeatedly). Affluent, liberal white people ate up Glass’s wild tales of capitalism run amok and privilege left unchecked, this despite the articles being unbelievable from the jump.
How was Stephen Glass able to perpetuate his fraudulence despite the rigorous fact-checking and editing gauntlet every story went through? How could he pull it off not once but literally dozens of times? Why did it take so long for anyone to catch on? And, most critically, WHY? Why would a talented young man with the world at his fingertips burn his life to the ground and salt the earth by committing the most grievous, unforgivable sin of his profession?
Ray pulls off a neat narrative trick here, setting Glass up as both our entry point to the world of the New Republic (we meet Glass proper as he cheerfully strolls through the office in his socks, his conversations with his co-workers casually establishing the dorm-room familiarity of the young staff and most every important emotional dynamic that the film will develop over the running time) and as the narrator of the story, explaining the ins and outs of the world of print journalism to a class of eager-eyed students. But the film steadily and unerringly wears away at that false front. As more and more characters become invested in figuring out just what the hell Glass is doing, Glass himself becomes increasingly unknowable, with each passing scene seeming more and more a sociopath with no true personality of his own.
(It turns out this may not have been just a smart call by Ray, but a necessity of circumstance. The editors and writers who worked with Glass all sat down with Ray and did extensive interviews [to the point that one subject who absolutely loathed the article that the film was inspired by ended up completely endorsing the film] but not Glass himself. And so Glass remains, to both the characters in the film and the film itself, a mirage-person that can never be known [btw, the writer of the article that inspired this film? Buzz Bissinger, the guy who wrote Friday Night Lights the book that became the movie that became the show you cry at just the thought of because Jesus Christ ‘The Son’ is just a grueling episode of television. Bissinger’s most recent work includes endorsing Mitt Romeny for president in 2012 and writing a GQ article about being a ‘shopaholic’ that is even douchier than that combination of words would suggest].)
Hayden Christensen plays Glass, in what remains the only film to properly harness the innate whininess of Christensen’s persona. He’s charming enough that you buy into the idea of Glass as this beloved golden boy, the adored younger brother-figure to the older staff, but all Christensen has to do is open his mouth and you can smell the rat.
Glass’s game is cobbling together vague story details into sensationalized narratives, stories that he has carefully engineered to be catnip for his audience, stories which are too entertaining and pleasurable for anyone to think twice about. The little shit is writing Clickbait, essentially, a decade and change before such a thing was even a thing.
After spending a good chunk of the movie familiarizing the audience with the spacious, expensive quarters of the New Republic, and the fawning, unquestioning affection and coddling (other writers drop everything so they can help poor, sweet Stevie punch-up his articles) with which they treat Glass, Ray hard cuts to the competition: a scrappy tech site where the reporters work in cubicles, hustle and haggle for every story, and work through all hours of the day and night to pile up facts until they have a story. It’s great stuff, stating in a kind of plain-spoken poetry the way that the media exists as a checks-and-balance system to comfortable power (including power within the media world itself), and the way that the little guy, armed with the truth, can tackle any subject.
In depicting this battle for the soul of journalism, Ray benefits from an absurdly stacked cast. Steve Zahn (in one of the first, ‘Holy shit Steve Zahn is a fucking GREAT actor!’ roles. See also: Rescue Dawn. Seriously, go watch that movie. It’s great, and Zahn is owed an apology by every awards body that stiffed him that year) is the dogged reporter trying to break the Glass story, and Rosario Dawson brings tremendous life to a smaller role as a colleague trying to hone in on the story. On the other side of the aisle is Chloë Sevigny as Glass’s most ardent defender, Melanie Lynskey as a reporter at the New Republic (who, in one short scene, beautifully encapsulates the true threat posed by pieces of shit like Glass and what they do to the industry and the people in it. Lynskey is brilliant in that way that Melanie Lynskey just tends to be brilliant in everything) and Hank Azaria has a great turn as the editor who first catches wind of what Glass is doing but gets shit-canned before he can do anything about it.
But the film ultimately strips all these characters away and becomes a duel between Christensen’s Glass and Peter Sarsgaard’s Chuck Lane, the newly installed editor of the New Republic who realizes what is happening and becomes fixated on dragging the truth out of the pathologically needy and untrustworthy Glass.
Just as the film grows further and further from Glass, it grows closer to Lane, until the final act of the film presents him as the furious conscience of moral media, a conscience that will not be bent. A character that seemed cold and didactic in the early goings is revealed to be the lone responsible adult of the entire mess. The moment when Sarsgaard (who is phenomenal) finally puts his foot down and eviscerates all of Glass’s weepy bullshit and all the defenses of these crimes, it’s as much a stand-up-and-cheer moment as any last-second touchdown.
Shattered Glass is not the thriller that the (failed) promotional campaign tried to lie people into seeing, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling. It’s a film about smart, resourceful people doing things they are great at, a film that proves to be a celebration of intelligence, of effort, and of the ability of moral right to see through the lies and mistruths that plague us so.
We’ll probably never be rid of the Stephen Glasses of the world, but that doesn’t mean the liars and cheats get to win. You just have to fight even harder than they lie.