Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shattered Glass-the truth comes out

Billy Ray's 2003 directorial debut Shattered Glass is kind of a throwback to movies from the 1970's. It's driven by characters, and its drama is derived from their interactions and the slowly unveiled truth that changes the dynamics between them. It's based on the true story of Stephen Glass, a former writer for The New Republic ("the in-flight magazine of Air Force One"), who in 1998 was fired for lying in a story he wrote for the magazine. By "lying", I mean that he just completely made everything up out of thin air. The real Stephen Glass has said that it all started by re-writing a quote from a source. When fact checked, the quote was ok'd and Glass just kind of went from there into making up more things in his stories until he finally just made them up completely. Glass had made his name as the most vigorous of fact checkers when he was an intern, and had so developed a reputation that when something from his story didn't quite check out, the fact checker would still ok it because Stephen wouldn't have put it in his story without checking it first. Right?

Glass is played in the movie by Hayden Christensen, showing that George Lucas just didn't know how to handle actors in the newest Star Wars trilogy. Christensen brilliantly portrays Glass as a sort of self-concious wounded child that people feel a little bit sorry for, so they cut him some slack when they shouldn't. He has demanding parents he's trying to please by going to Georgetown Law School, writing full time for The New Republic, and occasionally freelancing for other magazines as his name gets known more and more. He writes a piece about hackers that is picked up by Forbes Digital Tool, the fledgling online publication from Forbes magazine. They've never heard of any of the things mentioned in the Glass piece, even though it's right up their alley. So writer Adam Pennenberg (an amazingly subtle Steve Zahn) starts doing some digging. When Pennenberg can't verify anything in the story outside of that there is a state called Nevada, they bring it up to The New Republic's editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard, nominated for a Golden Globe for his terrific performance). Chuck starts pressuring Glass to come up with some answers for what he wrote, and is offended at the answers he finds. It's a wonderfully done cat-and-mouse game between the two of them, as Chuck pressures while not wanting to believe the truth, with Stephen wriggling any which way he can to try to get out of his lies.

Having never been a journalist, I can't speak to whether or not Shattered Glass gets the details of the profession right. But it feels right. It feels more real than in most movies about journalists. These actually seem like people's desks, and it feels like they're working in a real office. The awkward moment when Chuck takes over his position from beloved editor Michael Kelly (a surprisingly great dramatic turn from Hank Azaria) feels true to life, even though Billy Ray says on the DVD commentary that it's one of the few moments in the movie that didn't actually happen that way.

At a brisk 94 minutes, you would tend to think that maybe Ray short changed his subject, but he and his actors create their world so vividly that the movie doesn't feel truncated in the slightest. It feels like they just told their story with no fat added on to pad the running time. Shattered Glass is one of the most sadly overlooked movies of the decade, and having now watched it 4 or 5 times, I can say that its impact only strengthens on repeat viewings. I wish there were more like it, but maybe that would make it less special when we find these kind of movies.

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