Shattered Glass

dir: Billy Ray
[img_assist|nid=996|title=Yes, I am mad at you, you lying hack|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=364]
When you hear about the plot of a movie focussing solely on the exploits of a journalist, you immediately think that it would have to be a rip-roaring extravaganza to match the likes of All the President’s Men, or Michael Mann’s The Insider. How else could one justify devoting all that time, money and celluloid to a profession big on typing and drinking? It doesn’t immediately lend itself to the action formula until they leave the office and start getting involved in gun fights and car chases.

As well, anyone who knows even the least amount about the notorious Stephen Glass whose rise and fall is charted in this film knows that the idea of devoting a film to his exploits isn’t meant in a complimentary fashion. It’s not meant as praise, or to lionise him for his good works for the ages. In fact it’s the magnitude of his ‘crimes’ that seemingly justifies such a study of events as they came to pass.

And what is his crime, ultimately? Did he molest children, sell secrets to the Russians, murder his mum or punch an umpire in the face? Of course not, though with a sociopath like Glass anything’s possible. Instead, he committed the gravest sin a journalist can ever consider: he made stuff up in his articles and then lied about it.

Horror, you’re thinking. It’s one of the sure signs of the Apocalypse, you’re thinking. A journalist making stuff up for a magazine hardly seems to warrant a biopic for most of us. Journalism as a profession has been demonised so concertedly over the last century or so to the point where it probably ranks around the level of trustworthiness associated with ambulance-chasing lawyers, Catholic priests, politicians and prostitutes.

Various people have labelled journalism and the entire media machine a tool of the evil Left, and those of a liberal disposition claim the media is just a PR spin device for the interests of big business, mindless celebrity worship and maintenance of the status quo. Somewhere there in the middle most of us sit trying not to be too cynical about the media, but also nowhere near naïve enough to believe we’re told the unvarnished truth the majority of time even by those who have the best of intentions.

Stephen Glass’ true crime is not just that he made up some elements of his stories. It’s not even that some articles were cut from whole cloth, as the phrase goes implying wholesale dishonesty. His biggest crime as far as journalists are concerned, especially the journos with whom he worked, is that he made them all look bad. All of them lost credibility when one of their own was able to get away with it for so long unquestioned. It revealed the entire shaky edifice that is the editorial policy and fact checking process of a respected magazine, and called into question the dependability of journalists everywhere.

Naturally, in order to distance themselves from the likes of Glass and more recent shitheels like Jayson Blair (liars and plagiarists in general), journalists trip all over themselves to be the first and the loudest to denounce their reprehensible colleagues as the worst kind of betrayers. If their outrage can convince the public that they are completely different from those guys that have brought their profession into disrepute, then they figure all will be right with the world. It doesn’t really work of course.

The days where people give journalists the benefit of the doubt and took their credibility for granted are long gone. With so many sources, so many journalists, so many websites, tabloid and broadsheet newspapers, magazines, cable channels and the persistent blurring of the line between marketing and news, it’s no wonder people are unsure about what’s really going on.

Stephen Glass as played by Hayden Christiansen doesn’t help matters either. Glass is portrayed not as a malicious villain twirling his moustache and planning his evil schemes whilst doing that Dr Evil laugh, but as a needy, narcissistic kid. The median age, we are shown at film’s beginning, at the New Republic was 26. Glass was 24 when all this started. Young and full of brio, sought after by all the magazines, his co-workers care about him and he’s chummy with his editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria). Shuffling around the office in his socks, always ready with a little treat or a jokey word for the other staff, he is the cubicle animal incarnate, perfectly adapted to the office environment. Helpful to a fault, sycophantic and obsequious to an almost painful degree he exploits and manipulates those around him in order to protect or magnify himself in ways that aren’t readily identifiable to the audience.

The cracks start to show when a little detail seems out of place on one of his articles regarding a young conservative’s convention. His editor as a matter of course simply enquires about one of the details. It’s not taken any further, but already we are privy to the manner in which Glass tries to deflect suspicion. Usually whenever someone tries to get his attention or asks him if they can have a word, his immediate response is to ask ‘Are you mad at me?’ His defensiveness illustrates, if nothing else, the constant fear Glass must have felt expecting to be caught out or criticised at any given moment.

He pays painstaking attention to the people around him, storing away information about their likes and dislikes, trying perpetually to be onside with everyone. When his enabling boss Kelly is fired over disagreements with the owner Marty Peretz, one of Glass’s co-workers Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) is elevated to the position of editor. Whilst bitching about Kelly’s firing in the next breath he’s sucking up to Lane as if it’s business as usual.

The film never gives the actual reason for Peretz’s firing of Kelly, that being his anger with Kelly for tenaciously going after Gore and Clinton during the latter’s reign of terror. The issue of importance as far as Glass is concerned is that his previous ‘soft touch’ editor is out, and a new guy that seems immune to his bullshit is in. Around this time one of Glass’s articles comes to the attention of the good people at Forbes Digital Tool, a young online component of the Forbes empire focussing on the IT industry, who wonder how Glass scooped them when he got the story that resulted in the article ‘Hack Heaven’.

In the article Glass refers to a young punk called Ian Restil, who hacks his way into the corporate network of a California IT company called Jukt Micronics. The company then employees the hacker with a six figure salary and accedes to a ridiculous array of demands, making the kid a hero of the hacking community.

See, a story like that immediately sounds like crap to us now in this day and age. The thing is it should have sounded like crap then as well. The flaws in the fact-checking process are represented in all their glory: when the internal fact-checking process requires little more than the fact checkers checking the notes of the writer, the system is just begging to be abused by narcissistic sociopaths like Glass.

Instead of coming clean the film goes on to list the increasingly absurd lengths Glass goes to in order to try to hide the fact that he was a compulsive liar. That’s the thing about compulsive liars, they’re like people that don’t like to give head: they don’t go down without a fight.

Throughout it all we never discover the real reason why Glass decided to completely fabricate his stories. Being liked by his co-workers and his editors is obviously very important to him, and he goes to great lengths to achieve these ends, but how this ties in to wanting to make up fantastical stories for them doesn’t really compute. And whilst (external to the movie, from what has been said subsequently) all of this aligns with the manipulative and narcissistic nature of the character study on display, it is still never made explicit.

Perhaps leaving it up to us, the director and script connect enough of the dots for the audience to see the big picture: perhaps at first Glass did it because he has contempt for his co-workers, his ‘soft touch’ editors and the readers of Rolling Stone, George and The New Republic. It is this arrogance, this unmitigated contempt for others that allowed him to believe that his frauds warranted publication specifically because people were stupid enough to believe everything he wrote and that he was talented enough a writer to justify not having to actually witness any of the events or stories he wrote about. Maybe it’s something simpler than that: maybe he was just lazy.

Whatever the underlying pathology, Glass still comes off looking like a very nasty piece of work. The portrayal certainly isn’t in any way what I would call sympathetic, in that because we don’t understand the reasons for Glass’ sociopathy, or any mitigating circumstances that would shed light on his lack of integrity, we never cross the line from marvelling at his mendacity to appreciating his position.

The acting and direction are more than adequate, nothing flashy, all that is needed to tell the story properly. Much criticised for his painful stint as a young Darth Vader in Lucas’ prequel to the Star Wars saga, Hayden Christiansens’ youthful insecurity, clumsiness, neediness all work to the character’s benefit. It’s a wonderful job playing so awful a character and keeping him grounded and believable.

Most of the other roles don’t require anything too flashy and are competently assayed. Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaad, Hank Azaria, Steve Zahn, Rosario Dawson amongst others all do their bit to make the story believable and entertaining. Hank Azaria especially, as Michael Kelly, who unfortunately was one of the first press casualties during Gulf War II, is especially good. I especially liked the scene where Glass has come to him looking for help out of the quagmire of his own making, where Kelly, realising that he’d been taken for a ride in the past, asks Glass if he’d ever ‘cooked’ any pieces whilst he’d been editor. We don’t see Glass’ response, but it’s a telling scene.

Peter Sarsgaard does a competent job as Chuck Lane, the editor under whose reign the entire shitstorm at The New Republic breaks. Mostly he just wanders around with a shitty expression on his face. When he grasps the magnitude of Glass’ deception his horror is palpable. This is well realised in a scene where he starts taking copies of the magazine off of a display and re-reads Glass’ articles with a new eye.

It’s not the most action-packed movie, that has to be said. It’s not going to stimulate the pink bits of people who get bored by dialogue that goes for more than a few seconds at a time and uses something more than catchphrases. Also, people who don’t read newspapers and magazines, believing it to be a waste of time aren’t really going to get much out of this experience. They’re the same people who would wonder what the big deal is, and why anyone would care to learn about such a story. If it doesn’t have a monkey in it or something exploding at the end, what’s the point, eh?

Still, even without that the film remains a compelling look at the Fourth Estate, and an interesting if despicable character who manipulated the system and betrayed the trust of more than just the people he worked with. At a time where the media is becoming more and more brazen with the manner in which truth is subverted for interests and agendas, such a story becomes all the more timely and important.

8 times I marvelled at the similarities between this fucker and some people I know out of 10

"Are you mad at me?" - Shattered Glass