Story Over Substance

The Culture Snob Drunken Commentary Track for Shattered Glass is available here.

Shattered Glass

On paper, Shattered Glass sounds like an earnest bore. It’s the now-familiar story of Stephen Glass, a writer for The New Republic and various other niche magazines (as well as Rolling Stone) who in the late 1990s made a bunch of shit up in his articles.

Oh, the stuff of great cinema!

And the pedigree is pretty rotten, too. Writer-director Billy Ray has to his credit the classic screenplays of Hart’s War and Color of Night. The star, Hayden Christensen, is best known for embarrassing himself in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (not that anyone has escaped the prequels with dignity intact). The biggest role for the other major actor, Peter Sarsgaard, was in K-19: The Widowmaker, which still sounds like a new slogan for Mentos.

Yet, groan-worthy title aside, Shattered Glass is amazingly peppy, smart, and light, anchored by Christensen as Glass and Sarsgaard as his editor, Chuck Lane. It is, of course, a serious exploration of journalistic deception, but it has depth without being overly sober or self-important. It might be the most fun you’ll ever have watching a movie that’s good for you.

Shattered Glass is very specifically about reporters and editors and takes place almost exclusively in the workplace — the audience only gets brief glimpses of Lane’s home life — but the movie should appeal to audiences who don’t give a shit about journalism or its ethics.

That’s because Shattered Glass is finally about human trust. Magazines and newspapers can employ all the fact-checkers they want, but the enterprises are still built to a large degree on faith — that the reporter is accurately relating what happened, what was said, and what was meant. And editors need to believe their reporters, because otherwise their jobs would be bogged down with constant verification.

In the case of Stephen Glass, however, that reporter-editor trust was violated repeatedly and with vigor. Glass didn’t just fuck up minor facts; he fabricated entire articles and filled them with people who didn’t exist, events that never happened, and vivid detail that was too good to be real. And he did it with no small amount of relish, feeding off the adulation.

He got away with it, the movie argues, despite The New Republic’s rigorous fact-checking system and Glass’ inability to lie well. He got away with it because he was a good storyteller, in editorial meetings and on paper. And if a writer keeps churning out great copy filled with perfect anecdotes, well, isn’t a good story still a good story?

In reality, Glass was too good at storytelling. After he writes an article on a hackers’ convention at which a young kid gets hired by a major software company, an online magazine that got scooped starts looking at the story, and finds that nothing in it can be verified. Glass tries to cover his tracks with an amateurish Web page and business card and a phony voice-mail message, and he of course can’t keep up with his lies.

But Lane repeatedly gives Glass the benefit a doubt. He’s new at his job, having been promoted from writer to replace the popular Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria). The staff thinks their new editor is out to get people who supported the old boss.

And while he’s not a good liar, Glass is doubtlessly clever, having honed his act for all of his twenty-odd years. He acts aggressively sensitive to criticism, opening many exchanges with “Are you mad at me?” and thus taking control of the conversation, putting his superiors on the defensive. When he thinks someone’s on to him, he quickly admits to a minor flub — such as screwing up a small detail — to head off the inquiry. He helps other reporters with their stories, so he’s well-liked.

In other words, Glass essentially puts Lane in a position in which he’s torn among doing his obvious professional duty, trying to salvage this young man’s apparently fragile psyche, and avoiding an office revolt. The movie doesn’t make much effort to understand Glass, but it does an excellent job at showing how his literary skill and passive-aggressive mannerisms allowed him to keep his job long after he should have been caught. And the film nails office politics — not their absurdity, but their human dimension.

The lesson of Shattered Glass isn’t revelatory — that Glass’ deceptions were facilitated by the editors’ desire for a good story (rather than good reporting) — but it is done nimbly. Ray doesn’t belabor his points and seems more interested in the narrative than preaching its implications. And he smartly shifts the focus away from Glass — the movie’s ostensible subject — and toward the editor and his quandary.

Lane served as a consultant on Shattered Glass, and although he comes off as the most sympathetic character, the movie is even-handed. I didn’t hate Glass, and I didn’t think of Lane as a hero. As played by Christensen, Stephen is something of a charmer, and he won me over even when it was clear he had done great harm to the people around him. Lane comes off as indecisive and too trusting even when all the evidence says he shouldn’t be.

This emphasis on character is the main reason Shattered Glass works so well; it’s not really about journalism. While All the President’s Men was relentlessly focused on the reporting process, Ray is more interested in the people — how Glass operated, why editors bought his lies, why his co-workers loved him.

Still, Ray almost overplays the story, first with a framing device showing Glass talking to a journalism class at his high school and finally with the reception Lane receives from The New Republic staff after the rogue reporter is gone.

The high-school lecture is important, though, in showing that Glass’ fantasy life extends beyond his magazine prose; it suggests that he has no remorse and even fancies himself noble.

The staff-meeting sequence is a little more troublesome. Even if it’s an accurate reflection of what actually happened, it plays badly, like the finale of a formulaic inspirational-teacher movie.

Alternatively, coming right after the rapturous classroom ovation Glass receives, it could be read as a reflection of Lane’s ego and self-righteous pride at having ultimately done the right thing.

What’s important to remember, though, is that Glass maintained his deception not because of his skill but because he worked in an environment that fostered his fictions and wasn’t designed to stop them. Lane might have finally caught and punished Glass, but it took much longer than it should have.

I always thought this was an important movie that snuck through without much notice even though it refleced a lot about our media-driven culture. Packaging/Branding became so much more important because quality work doesn’t stand out anymore-at least that’s the premise. I didn’t have any sympathy for Glass but I understood why he crossed the line, the rewards were easily accessible and he thought he was smarter than the system. The other part of the story that amazed me though is after Glass was caught and embarassed, he still believed he did nothing wrong.

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