Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) is a promising young reporter and assistant editor on The New Republic, a Washington-based magazine boasting an 80-plus-year heritage and ‘in-flight’ status on Air Force One. He has managed to gain popularity and acclaim within the magazine, as well as in his freelance career elsewhere, for providing vivid, humorous anecdotal articles detailing the often absurd or dramatic. After online journalist Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) at Forbes Digital begins to investigate ‘Hack Heaven’, a Glass article on computer hackers extorting a software company, his career and journalistic integrity is soon brought into disrepute. This controversy occurs subsequent to a recent changing of the guard at The New Republic, where popular editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) was ousted in favour of the less-experienced Charles ‘Chuck’ Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). Is Glass a victim of politics, has he been duped by his sources, or is he just plain lying?
An admittedly abstract concern when adapting a true story about journalistic fraud, is that any dramatic licence taken with the material can be seen as fraudulent itself. Luckily, in the case of Shattered Glass, the scandal was heavily documented and transcribed, to the point where – at least, according to the claims of the supplied audio commentary – much of the events and dialogue is almost entirely verbatim. It’s an impressive feat to include so much direct pilfering of reality, without concession to a documentary or vérité format. Perhaps as a consequence, the more conceptual aspects of the story are less compelling, such as its framing device of Glass as narrator giving a magnanimous lecture to a classroom of high school students.
Shattered Glass is screenwriter Billy Ray’s (erstwhile co-creator of science-fiction series Earth 2 (1994-1995)) directorial debut, which was followed in 2007 with the thematically similar Breach, starring Ryan Phillipe as a promising young FBI agent accused of spying for the Russians. Partly as a consequence, and partly given the largely office-based, dialogue-driven events, the production never really raises itself above ‘competent’. There’s nothing in the way of bravura performance or stylistic flourish, but there’s also no scenery chewing or distracting editorial trickery. It’s a vanilla piece, something very much befitting a story about truth, and the trouble one has in defining it. The ambiguity lies not just in whether Glass is telling the truth (something admittedly unlikely from the outset) or how much of his work is fabrication, but in what exactly motivates Glass. As his behaviour appears increasingly manipulative, how could he possibly justify himself? The question is far from resolved, though the likes of Soderberg’s The Informant! (2009) provide a more in-depth account of a similarly-addled figure.
As an actor, it could be said that Hayden Christensen became something of a victim of circumstance; this is assuming one could claim ‘victim’ after starring in two of the most profitable films in history. Among numerous criticisms of the then-current state of the Star Wars franchise, Hayden was singled out for his poor acting and absence of charisma. Shattered Glass is his only credit between those two gargantuan tentpoles so, if little else, is able to claim back a certain credibility from Darth Vader’s steely grip. Hayden acquits himself admirably, channeling a sulky persona and oily, ingratiating charm suitably onto a man of dubious allegiance and legitimacy. Regardless, the real acting highlight is Peter Sarsgaard’s turn as Chuck Jones, the recently promoted editor-in-chief who takes over protagonal reins when the investigation gathers wind. He plays it cool throughout, with a wariness and resentment of Glass’ bourgeoning celebrity, alongside a quiet professionalism that doesn’t let too much slip.
Beyond the ostensibly true events shown in the film, and their broad commentary on the nature of American journalism in the late 90’s, more intriguing is the depiction of the rise of modern media. Not much of Hollywood’s output has really addressed or tackled the tremendous sea change in communication over the past two decades. They’d still have you think everyone uses Bing, for example. Save for The Social Network (2010), the Hitchcockian scaremongering of The Net (1995), the cyber-anachronism of Hackers (1995) and a handful of other genre thrillers, little real hay has been made of the digital revolution and its myriad impact. It’s relatively subtle, but Shattered Glass at least makes distinction between the online journalists of Forbes Digital (who at the time faced an uphill struggle for legitimacy) and the relative complacency of The New Republic. The former can almost instinctively see through Glass’ story, particularly regarding the emails and websites he provides as corroboration. The conflict at the heart of the film can be read as between the analogue self-satisfaction of the past, and the digital efficiency of the present. Arguably, one can no longer hide our lies so easily, and the effect is profound.
Shattered Glass does suffer in its transitioning of fact into narrative, and is a slight tale in the wider context of non-fiction cinema. The transition of protagonist from Stephen Glass to Chuck Jones is a little clumsy, plus the finale doesn’t contain the rousing catharsis that it seems to be aiming for. The story, however, is fascinating; the film does well in dramatising the events with coherence and fidelity. It also amounts to a compelling morality play and an intriguing character study of Stephen Glass, albeit one that unabashedly lacks a diagnosis.