Thursday 25 June 2020

Movie Review: Shattered Glass (2003)

A biographical drama, Shattered Glass explores the high-stress world of deadline-driven journalism and the perils of hyper-charisma.

It's 1998 in Washington DC, and Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) is a cocky young reporter at the prestigious New Republic magazine. He is an invited celebrity guest at a college journalism class, advising starry-eyed students on career success. Affable and good natured, Stephen is popular among his work colleagues, including fact checkers Caitlin (Chloƫ Sevigny) and Amy (Melanie Lynskey), and well-liked by respected editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria).

But Glass has a tense relationship with Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), who takes over as editor when Kelly is fired. Glass then writes an entertaining piece about the antics of a young hacker at a recent convention. Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), a reporter at fledgling online publication Forbes Digital, wonders how he missed the event and starts fact checking, finding many holes in Glass' story. The errors are brought to Lane's attention, who initiates his own probing and starts to doubt Stephen's credibility.

The unveiling of Stephen Glass as a fraudster with a flair for writing fiction and passing it off as journalism shook the haughty world of the esteemed but small-circulation New Republic (established: 1914), a photo-free publication targeting world leaders and fully invested in the power of truthful words. His downfall was also an early reputational boost for start-up online publications, and exposed the hazards of relying on easily fabricated "reporter's notes" for fact checking. 

With misinformation at the core of the Glass controversy, director and writer Billy Ray meticulously researched the facts and assembled Shattered Glass as a close-to-the-truth drama, with fairness to actual people a prime objective. Ray resists the temptation to delve into Glass' childhood and upbringing in search of character-shaping clues. While the context is notably absent, the young man is presented as others saw him, a charming, full of life, natural storyteller and entertainer garnering immediate likeability. He is also an expert at self-deprecation and cleverly positions himself as a victim when needed to elicit sympathy and support.

The film gains strength from the contrast with Charles Lane. Dour, humourless and saddled with taking over as editor from the popular Michael Kelly, the relatively inexperienced Lane finds a potentially explosive controversy ticking in his lap when the Forbes Digital journalists start asking questions Glass cannot answer. Gradually Lane takes over the heart of the film and Ray deftly steers the narrative towards a reluctant and unpopular leader grappling with a toxic crisis.

Hayden Christensen is adequate in the showy lead role but stays close to the few notes between seeking the centre of attention and whining when challenged. Peter Sarsgaard is more stoic, his performance appropriately subdued but with gathering strength behind watchful eyes.

Within the remarkably efficient 94 minutes Ray creates an energetic milieu, the timeline-driven vigorous magazine culture providing a crackling, always-on-the-move dynamism. Despite the high pressure job Glass also insists on pursuing a law degree, the burn-both-ends-of-the-candle mentality either an excuse for sloppiness or a corroboration of recklessness. Unchecked and misdirected, the zest of youth can upend legacies.

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