“Shattered Glass” is a brilliant movie that analyzes the ethics and fact checking practices exercised in professional journalism today. As a freelance feature writer for such noteworthy publications as Rolling Stone, Harper’s, George, and the famed political policy magazine The New Republic, Stephen Glass created quite a controversy when it was discovered that a majority of his work was partially or in some instances, completely fictionalized. In fact, it caused the entire industry to rethink and evaluate its editorial practices. Based on the Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger and marking the directorial debut of screenwriter Billy Ray, “Shattered Glass” is a thought provoking thriller about honesty and integrity in news reporting that lends credence to the phrase: “Don’t believe everything you read.”
In 1998, roughly half of the staff writers of The New Republic were in their mid-twenties, many fresh out of college, wet behind the ears, and ready to make a difference. Among them was Stephen Glass, a highly talented feature writer with a knack for the dramatic. The film picks up with Glass on an assignment covering the escapades of a group of young Republicans. Admittedly, it is a boring assignment, but Glass soon discovers that there is more than meets the eye. Outside of the political action committee meeting, a group of young Republicans drink heavily, smoke pot, and mingle with prostitutes. It’s scandalous and makes for a very eye-catching story. Although his editor, Michael Kelly, questions some of the facts, the mistakes are deemed minor enough to avoid corrective action. Unfortunately, that cannot be said for Kelly. While Glass schmoozes with his co-workers and editors from competing publications, the well-respected Kelly is silently dismissed by the publisher.
Enter Chuck Lane. Lane was a colleague of Glass’ and a fellow writer for The New Republic during Kelly’s stint. Following the questionable dismissal of Kelly, Lane is promoted to editor and instantly placed into an uncomfortable situation with his co-workers. Even more despicable is the clean up that he has to perform after suspicion grows surrounding “Hack Heaven,” a recently published work by Glass that may have fictional content. Disliked by his peers and hounded by Forbes for factual sources and contacts on the piece, Lane begins an investigation into the ethical practices and standards at the publication. And he soon realizes that he may have only hit the tip of the iceberg, one that could destroy the credibility of The New Republic for good.
“Shattered Glass” is as entertaining as it is educational. It provokes important questions about morals and judgment, about character and integrity, and about truth and responsibility in journalism. And it’s a great learning tool for young, aspiring journalists; particularly in the way it engages you in the editorial process. It reminded me a lot of another newsworthy masterpiece called “All the President’s Men,” with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Washington Post reporters looking to break the infamous Watergate scandal. Both films are wonderful in the way they are able to build mystery and suspense around their respective stories, stories where we know the outcome, but are nonetheless eager to see how they unfold.
One of the reasons “Shattered Glass” holds our interest is because of the way it juxtaposes the common character stereotypes. In other words, the protagonist is not a hero and the antagonist is not a villain. Stephen Glass is a protagonist who seems likable, even admirable in some respects on the outside, but is flawed on the inside. He seems to hold high standards for reporting – he’s resourceful, determined, loyal to his friends, and is even willing to resign over misreported details. But once you see through his banter, his motives, his manipulation, you realize that everything is a deception. Everything is inserted to gain sympathy and pity. Likewise, Chuck Lane is not your typical antagonist. He is placed in situation after situation where a villain could flourish, but he chooses instead to go down the road of respect.
Speaking of which, Peter Sarsgaard is absolutely sensational in his supporting role as Chuck Lane. In fact, you can chalk this one up for next March. Lane’s character is not flashy, he probably wasn’t the best writer at The New Republic, and he wasn’t as popular as some of the other writers. But he was strong ethically; he was strong when it counted. Portraying the understated good guy, the fatherly figure who exhibits grace and poise under pressure, Sarsgaard personifies the spirit of the outsider. What makes his performance so impressive is how he quietly builds your trust, your respect, and your sympathy over the course of the movie. And in the end, he leaves no doubt in reclaiming the respect of his staff.
Hayden Christensen demonstrates why he is more than just the man behind the mask (Darth Vader). I was very impressed with his portrayal of the rebellious Sam in Irwin Winkler’s “Life as a House” as equally as his turn as Stephen Glass, a character with just as many insecurities. But this is not the head strong Anakin Skywalker we’ve come to know; rather, it’s the whining, indifferent, manipulative type. Joining Christensen and Sarsgaard is a solid supporting cast inclusive of Chloe Sevigny’s impressionable Caitlin to Steve Zahn’s technical Penenberg to Hank Azaria as Michael Kelly, the editor every writer would love to have. [On a sad note, it’s later learned that Kelly was one of the reporters who died during his coverage of the Gulf War].
In Lori Robertson’s article “Ethically Challenged,” Charles Lane says: “I really think the most important thing you can do, which The New Republic really didn’t do when it hired Stephen Glass, is screen people very carefully when they come in for integrity. Make sure you have sort of an honest person coming in the door.” If only they knew! It is this questionable character development in Stephen Glass that I felt was lacking in the film. In other words, what initially compelled him to start lying and falsifying his work? What prompted him to continually skirt the fact-checking department? And why were some of his stories based entirely on fact? The film would have you believe that it was Stephen’s lack of self-esteem or confidence that possessed him to create fiction and that he lied only because he wanted to be liked. But something tells me that there is a deeper reason, one that may involve journalism pressures. One that that compels journalists to continually produce the next best thing and oftentimes to cross the boundaries between uneventful true stories and sensationalized interest stories. Bit by bit, ounce by ounce, the little white lies snowball into something bigger. And before you know it, you’ve created a piece where the only definitive fact is the state in the Union called Nevada.
“Shattered Glass” is an eye-opening and gripping thriller that poses some very important questions. Is it the obligation of the media to only print the truth? What changes can be made to safeguard fraudulent reporting? How can we, as readers, be sure of the integrity of the written word? And what would be the impact of a media that prints fabrications? To this moment, I’m still puzzled as to how a feature article can have so many falsities after going through such a grueling editorial process. But it still happens. Most recently, the crisis at The New York Times following some fictional reporting during the war with Iraq would have me believe that the problem is far from resolved. Says Billy Ray: “When people can no longer believe what they read, their only choices will be to either turn to television for their daily news, or to stop seeking out news entirely. Either path, I think, is a very dangerous one for this country.”
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