Shattered Glass


USA, 2003. Rated PG-13. 96 minutes.

Cast: Hayden Christensen, Peter Saarsgard, Hank Azaria, ChloŽ Sevigny, Steve Zahn, Rosario Dawson, Melanie Lynskey, Cas Anvar, Ted Kotcheff
Writer: Billy Ray, based on the Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger
Original Music: Mychael Danna
Cinematography: Mandy Walker
Producers: Craig Baumgarten, Adam Merims, Gaye Hirsch, Tove Christensen
Director: Billy Ray


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

B illing itself as "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One," The New Republic is known as one of the most influential public policy publications in the country, particularly when Democrats are in power. For all that, The New Republic is a remarkably unimpressive operation, operating on a shoestring budget and with a surprisingly young staff. In May 1998, when Shattered Glass is set, the average age of its fifteen writers and editors is only twenty-six.

Shattered Glass introduces us to the youngest of these, star writer Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), who would be eventually fired for inventing all or part of twenty-seven articles out of the forty-one he wrote for the New Republic. Glass's defining trait as a journalist is that he isn't one. His advice on success has nothing to do with writing or reporting—it is to be self-effacing around the office and solicitous toward your colleagues. It works, too, though it is difficult to imagine a more fake human being than Glass without perusing rosters of recent Presidential candidates.

Glass is a pathological liar. He rises to prominence with sensationalist pieces like a story about illegal goings-on at a Young Republicans convention. His articles, which contain as many factual inaccuracies as they do blatant invention, somehow cruise through the fact-checking process, rolling over only the occasional speed bump. It helps if you've greased the wheels with smarmy charm, and if the articles are increasing circulation.

Stodgy Chuck Lane (Peter Saarsgard) is flustered by Glass's success, but Lane is the choice to succeed well-liked editor-in-chief Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) when Kelly stands up to the boss one too many times. The staff, Glass most vocally among them, grouse that Lane is a boring fact checker. Nonetheless, Glass is in Lane's office first thing Monday morning, methodically kissing his butt. Life continues as before until The New Republic runs a Glass piece called "Hack Heaven," about a teenage computer hacker who extorts money from the company he has been terrorizing. Reporters Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) and Andy Fox (Rosario Dawson) of online publication Forbes Digital Tool become suspicious and begin to investigate. They soon find the only fact in the article that checks out is that Nevada is one of the fifty states.
Hayden Christensen and Peter Saarsgard
Hayden Christensen and Peter Saarsgard face off in Shattered Glass

Back at The New Republic, Glass can do no wrong, and is particularly idealized by Caitlin Avey, a composite character well played by ChloŽ Sevigny. The other reporters are trying to "write funny" the way Glass does, because "nobody wants policy pieces anymore." But when Forbes Digital Tool editor Kambiz Foroohar (Cas Anvar) calls for information about Glass's sources, Glass invents more lies to cover up his earlier ones. As a result, the increasingly uncomfortable Lane has to find a balance between standing by his writers and protecting the magazine's journalistic integrity.

This is not material that naturally lends itself to the cinematic medium, but director Billy Ray has written a sharp script devoid of filler. With director of photography Mandy Walker, Ray has plundered All the President's Men to create a compelling look reminiscent, as they have put it, of a studio film of the Seventies, and Mychael Danna's quiet but lively soundtrack keeps the story in motion.

The mounting tension between Glass and Lane as Lane tries to determine the extent of Glass's mendacity accounts for the best parts of Shattered Glass. There is tangible conflict here personifying two journalistic ideals—the entertainment-is-everything Glass versus the old-school Lane, who emerges as the real hero of the film. Saarsgard also starred with Sevigny in Boys Don't Cry as the terrifying John Lotter, and here he nails plain Lane so thoroughly it is incredible that both characters are played by the same actor. Christensen, on the other hand, although he is excellent in his scenes with Saarsgard, lacks wider credibility as Glass. Whether the fault lies with the actor or the character is hard to say. Ray's sources claim that Glass really is as unctuous and fake as Christensen depicts him, making it difficult to believe that anyone ever assigned him any credibility, or could even stand him for more than two seconds.

In fact, it's bewildering that no one saw through Glass immediately, which undermines the credibility of The New Republic as portrayed in Shattered Glass. This myopia, concomitant with the young ages of all its writers, makes it difficult to take the magazine seriously. Thus, the stakes don't seem high enough to generate the tension necessary to make Shattered Glass into a truly suspenseful journalism drama akin to All the President's Men. Writer/director Billy Ray tells you what the stakes are for The New Republic, but he never creates a concrete sense that something ominous is happening. What we see in Shattered Glass is a kid that screws up and gets caught, and an editor who becomes indignant about it.

Maybe we have become jaded by stories of reporters breaking the public trust, most recently Jayson Blair of The New York Times. The line between journalism and entertainment has all but disappeared, with prurient police investigations and sordid court cases passed off as substantive news, and increasingly preposterous scenarios on television foisted on us as "reality." Glass's story is symptomatic of a profoundly dysfunctional collective state of mind, territory that this film, for all its merits, leaves unmined. For that reason, Shattered Glass functions as a dramatic character study, but not as the galvanizing wake-up call about the sorry state of U.S. journalism that Ray says he wanted to make.

Review © November 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Lions Gate Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

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