In the wake of the recent scandal at the New York Times in which journalist Jayson Blair contrived sources and quotes Shattered Glass offers a potent exploration of another journalist's motivations for doing similar in the magazine world in the 1990s. As the youngest staff member of the political magazine The New Republic Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) is bylined month after month and his writing has such verve such power such wit and humor that he's getting calls to freelance for all the best publications. He's also a really nice guy complimenting the secretary's lipstick and helping new writers find their footing. Nice as he is though Glass is also a little childish: He tends to pout; he's always asking fact checkers and editors to help him out with his stories; and he's going to law school because his parents "made him." Because he's such a nice sweet innocent kid nobody suspects the somewhat outrageous stories he files are anything but true--until two writers at Forbes Digital pull the thread that causes Glass' carefully stitched web of lies to unravel.
As Glass Christensen (Attack of the Clones) is for once well cast. His cute pout is perfect for such lines as "Are you mad at me?" and "I'm sorry " which are his character's stock in trade. Of course the story is not entirely about Glass; his relationships with his two editors are key to the film's exploration of journalistic ethics. First there's Michael Kelly (solidly played by Hank Azaria) an editor so supportive of his staff he ends up getting fired for it. When Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) is promoted as his replacement the trouble begins for Glass and the office politics between Lane and his misguided star writer drive the story forward as much as the gradual uncovering of Glass' misdeeds. It's this relationship that brings out Christensen's intriguing dark side while Sarsgaard is wonderfully restrained in his role subtly presenting a character clearly torn between his journalistic integrity and his desire to have his staff (which includes Chloe Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey) see him as an editor who will back them up. It's also a treat to see a surprisingly smart Steve Zahn as Forbes Digital reporter Adam Penenberg and the continuously underestimated Rosario Dawson in a small role as his right-hand woman Andie Fox.
Some clever storytelling goes into the production of Shattered Glass--perhaps a little too clever at times. At staff meetings for example Stephen pitches stories about events he supposedly attended and we see them happen on screen as he describes them; we just never know if they're real or fiction (recall the schizophrenic fantasies of A Beautiful Mind). The framework that begins ends and punctuates the film at various times features Stephen giving a talk to his high school journalism teacher's class with a twist that's believable but maybe a little too expected by the time the movie ends. But even though we've seen these tricks before they serve the story well enough and overall the film's exploration of integrity and truth is appropriately intelligent but not too high-handed. Director/writer Billy Ray seems to recognize that if a peach-fuzz faced boy was able to hoodwink an entire editorial staff and many of the nation's top politicos many of them readers of The New Republic none of us should really trust any "true" story--even this movie.