Shattered Glass (2003)

Shattered Glass: 2003, dir. Billy Ray. Seen on DVD (May 22).
I forgot about this movie and when my boyfriend brought home Shattered Glass on DVD, someone mentioned Philip Glass and I was expecting to see some kind of weird musical documentary until I remembered, oh, Stephen Glass. Right.
Shattered Glass is the story of how Stephen Glass, a journalist for The New Republic, faked a bunch of articles for that magazine. More specifically, it’s the story about how he was caught.

And that’s part of the problem—if you followed the story in the media, you already know that he faked the articles. So there’s no reason to be in suspense about it. Yet the movie tries to keep us at the same pace as the movie’s characters in discovering the possible extent of fraud. The movie “flashes back” to show scenes of Glass researching his stories while he pitches them to the magazine staff, but we find out later that these flashbacks are all false, they never occurred.
We don’t get a very good understanding of Stephen Glass’s character. Why is he faking all these stories? The answer is supposedly that it is the pressure from attending law school full-time and working as a magazine writer/editor. But according to the movie, the faking starts before Glass goes to law school. If Glass is supposed to be a con man who derives a certain secret pleasure from pulling these hoaxes on his coworkers and his reading audience, we don’t see that. If he’s a charming liar and tale-spinner, who can’t resist adding colorful details to make a story better, we don’t see that either.
In one scene, Glass says he has to go to law school because his parents are forcing him into it, but we see no signs of that pressure at all other than Glass’s stress. No parents. No threats. The character’s motivations made very little sense to me. I don’t know if that had anything to do with Hayden Christiansen’s portrayal, which was fairly one-dimensional: he was nothing but a big ol’ ball of stress who went from tense to virtually insane in five seconds. He was hardly charming and persuasive.
(Christiansen’s haircut, glasses, and facial expressions in this movie reminded me eerily of my baby brother, which may have caused me to sympathize with him more than other viewers might. I realized this after I saw the movie. My brother would have been much cooler than this character, though.)
And how exactly did he manage to fake these articles and slip them through the magazine’s extensive editing process? At one point he explains that he got away with it because no one verified his personal notes, but I would have liked to have seen him actually doing this kind of work. This is why it would have been better for the audience to find out before the editors did—so we could get some insight into his methods of fakery, and perhaps as a result into his character.
I did like the portrayal of the New Republic offices. This may be because I used to work in journalism. I think one reason many critics liked this movie was because they’re ex-journalists, and it’s enjoyable to see the newsroom again. (At least, that’s the only reason I can think of as to why it was universally lauded.) At one point, Glass gives someone a heavily edited article that looked just like the edits I get here at work, the kind where you wonder if someone used up an entire red pen in marking. (Except the tech writers here tend to use purple pens. It’s so much less accusatory.)
It was a pleasure to see Hank Azaria and Melanie Lynskey in this movie, but I feel like they could have been used to better effect. I also liked Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane, Glass’s skeptical editor.
Shattered Glass is a weird movie. It looks like it was adapted from a play. Most scenes take place in the same few rooms and are somewhat talky. Possibly this was for budgetary reasons—why use more sets than you need? But it does give the film an odd claustrophobic feel.
Also, the flashback framing structure is weak and doesn’t quite make sense. After a certain point, you’re left wondering if the flashback sequences even existed outside of the main character’s mind. It just adds unnecessary confusion.
Shattered Glass was an interesting little movie but I feel like it could have been bigger and better. The overall focus was off-balance, the characterization was too shallow, and we don’t get any real understanding of who Stephen Glass was and why and how he did what he did. As a former journalist, my interest was piqued but entirely unsatisfied. Did I miss something?