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Glass menagerie
Shattered illusions and hard truths
Shattered Glass
Directed and written by Billy Ray based on the article by Buzz Bissinger. With Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Hank Azaria, Chloë Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey, and Steve Zahn. A Lions Gate Films release (94 minutes). At the Copley Place, the Kendall Square, and the West Newton and in the suburbs.

Weíve come a long way in the 27 years from All the Presidentís Men to Shattered Glass. Then, journalists were crusading heroes uncovering the lies of the powerful; now, journalists are bullied wimps hard-pressed to uncover lies fabricated by other journalists. Yet though Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) and Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) donít seem as heroic as Woodward and Bernstein, they too serve the cause of truth. So does first-time director Billy Ray in his initially infuriating but ultimately illuminating, provocative, and ambiguous account of the sordid career of notorious fabricator Stephen Glass.

Hayden Christensen shows a rare gift for sniveling as Glass, who in the mid 1990s, fresh out of college and in his early 20s, managed to ingratiate himself with the venerable New Republic, becoming a star member of the staff and one of its flashiest contributors. As shown in Rayís wry renditions of typical staff meetings, Christensenís Glass is squishily charming, not just to vulnerable females like Caitlin Avey (Chloë Sevigny in a problematic, fictitious role) but also to the charismatic and savvy editor, Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), who would become a casualty of the War in Iraq, and to whom the film is dedicated.

Whatís this all about? Glassís sycophancy and a passive-aggressive self-pity and self-loathing make his prevarication virtually undetectable (I think a shrink might diagnose him with borderline personality disorder). And the stories he comes up with are trendy, quirky, and funny ó the kind of low-content, high-calorie fluff that seems the future of journalism. The stodgy New Republic knows itís futile to resist and doesnít. Poor fellow staffer Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) has to glower in the corner with his dreary assignments about Haiti and Gabriel García Márquez while Glass regales his adoring colleagues with his gonzo investigations into millionaire teenage computer geeks and redneck Southern radio stations. So when an editorial coup díétat cans the popular Kelly and puts Lane in his place, naturally everyone turns against the charmless newcomer. His position doesnít get any better when Adam Penenberg, an investigative reporter for the now defunct on-line Forbes Digital Tool, checks out the facts in one of Glassís stories and finds theyíre all fictions (in the end, at least 27 of Glassís 41 stories would prove to have been made up). Should Lane call Glass on this, however, everyone will suspect him of treachery, and worse.

Neither does Lane give everybody much reason to think otherwise; masterfully portrayed by Sarsgaard, heís pale, anal, and humorless, a later-day Uriah Heep. And though we know that Glass is a phony, compared with the creepy Lane, he might just be a lovable rogue, the magazine version of Leonardo DiCaprioís sexy cheat in Catch Me If You Can. Further swaying opinion in favor of Glass is the filmís framing device. At the beginning, we see him addressing a journalism class at his old high school, and the students ó and his former teacher ó eat up his account of the events weíre about to see as readily as the New Republic staff does the bogus project proposals he spins for them. So doesnít that make the entire movie Glassís flashback? His own solipsistic, self-punishing, and self-congratulatory fabrication of his career of fabrication? If so, then Shattered Glass is a kind of Rashomon from a single point of view in which all objectivity and accountability recede into the infinite reflections of parallel mirrors. Journalists might just as well make up stories, since nothing is true anyway. As long as theyíre entertaining. Had Nixon pulled off Watergate three decades later, at the height of our ongoing crisis of truth, he mightnít have had to worry about a thing.

Still, itís hard to accept such an interpretation after taking in the arc of Sarsgaardís performance, and for that matter Christensenís. The weakling Lane gains strength as the basic credibility of his profession crumbles, whereas the slippery Glass fades. The scene in which Lane finally confronts Glass and resists all of his protean squirmings is excruciating and brilliant. The narcissistic Glass is shattered, and the truth sets Lane free.

Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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