Shattered GlassReviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 11/07/03 10:16:45
Calling out a writer with cries of “plagiarist” is the profession’s equivalent of being called a child molester. You better damn sure have the proof before vocalizing the word especially in the journalistic world we live in where accusations are made first and facts checked later. For those with any integrity, it’s a plight-and-a-half to be on either side of the equation. Billy Ray’s directorial debut, Shattered Glass, knows this and constructs a mystery out of paranoia and insecurity that when its all over ranks with All the President’s Men as one of the best films about investigative reporting ever made.Now, I’ve thought that ever since I saw the film over a month ago, but I’ve just committed the sentence to the page. As I’m accustomed to use the Internet Movie Database for reference (i.e. names associated with the film), I stumble across a similar statement amongst the user comments. It’s not the same sentence. A couple words are different. The structure is reversed and I used “reporting” instead of “journalism” since I already used “journalistic” earlier, but could that user accuse me of plagiarism? It’s just an opinion, one obviously shared by others besides myself, but an opinion nonetheless. Now, what if I just made the whole thing up? And it’s supposed to be a fact?
Back in 1998, a young writer named Stephen Glass (played here by Hayden Christensen aka young Anakin Skywalker) was an up-and-comer at the New Republic, a political magazine that swanks itself as the in-flight magazine of Air Force One. Every writer loves an editor who will protect and shield them from the B.S. that forces them to chop their stuff. Back then that guy was Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria). When Kelly is fired for one too many headbutts with upper management, reporter Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) is assigned to replace him.
Chuck isn’t nearly as well-liked as the amusing Glass, who pitches his stories with an entertainer’s exuberance that gets the staff laughing first and thinking about validity second. One day, a rival magazine begins looking into Glass’ story about a computer hacker. Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) scours the net for information but things don’t seem to add up. Slowly, it begins to surface that Glass’ tale may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
Tracking down falsehoods at first glance may not appear to have the legs for a feature-length treatment. In spite of everything, how long does it take to check facts? But Shattered Glass takes the time to show us, unraveling the investigation from all angles working against Stephen and revealing how falsities, either innocent mistakes or not, can go overlooked in an hour-to-hour operation. We are not treated like the unwashed masses here, nor does Billy Ray placate us with simplistic exposition. The minute we have a question doubting how such a situation could go unchecked, he answers it for us.
Still he’s very wise in his screenplay not to spell out everything, leaving us to fill in motivations for ourselves. Stephen has pressures outside of work and some even suggest emotional instability, but is that reason enough to risk such a high-profile job? The underlying stream of competitive jealousy that Ray hits spot-on is one of the deepest Cancers that could allow such a calamity to take shape. The “scoop” is a cliché that goes back to the minute the second newspaper was formed and everyone wants it. Before Penenberg begins his Woodward & Bernstein routine, he’s been chided by his editor for not beating Glass to the story, making for a far less noble crusade.
Even Chuck Lane is in a no-win situation, having replaced the staff’s beloved confidant and never being as popular as Glass. Externally it’s not as showy a role as Christensen’s who somehow perfectly molds a desperate performance that can easily sit alongside William H. Macy’s “I’m caught and I know it” bundle of nerves in Fargo. But it’s Peter Sarsgaard that commands this film in one of the more nuanced portrayals of a professional under pressure, just trying to do the right thing, that I’ve ever seen.
Consider the position he finds himself in and how naturally he treats the situation. He wants nothing more than to protect his writer and be the hero that Michael Kelly was to the office. Suspicions rise though with Glass having an answer for everything. We can see that something doesn’t add up and so does Lane. Sarsgaard internalizes nearly every thought he’s having and it’s a tribute to an actor who can make an audience read his mind while experiencing the same internal combustion that’s rising to the surface. It’s truly an Oscar-worthy performance.
This is a thriller in the most underutilized sense of the genre. Removing itself from false contrivances, we are drawn into a fail-safe situation that keeps trying to defuse itself while we want nothing more than to see it detonate. We’re sure we understand what Glass has perpetrated, but if we’re wrong have we been assimilated into the “guilty first and innocent later” culture created by the media? If we’re right, who will be the first to answer Glass’ favorite question, “Are you made at me?”Glass is an amalgam of the new journalism, both in tabloid and “responsible” reporting. In a profession that spans centuries, he’s just a boy in that history, eager to tell us a story that we’re willing to listen to. If it’s interesting and funny enough, who are we to question? We’re just the unwashed and he’s the professional. If All the President’s Men was old school in its depiction of the journalist-as-crusader, then Shattered Glass is for the new generation where entertainment has replaced facts. Granted it’s the writer’s usual enemy, the editor, who is the hero but maybe its time to start editing the Stephen Glass’ right out of the positions that pride themselves on telling US what’s wrong with the world. Am I mad at you, Stephen? I’m mad at the whole damn thing. You may not be a plagiarist. You may not be Jayson Blair. But what you did is a hundred times lower. At least, that’s my opinion.
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