Shattered Glass
Director: Billy Ray. Cast: Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, Hank Azaria, Melanie Lynskey, Steve Zahn, Rosario Dawson, Simone-Elise Girard, Chad Donella, Caroline Goodall. Screenplay: Billy Ray (based on the article by H.G. Bissinger).

Stephen Glass was a 24-year-old reporter who enjoyed a meteoric rise at the political magazine The New Republic in the mid-1990s, until 27 of his 41 published pieces were exposed as partially or totally fraudulent. This information is both the premise and the endpoint of rookie writer-director Billy Ray's new film Shattered Glass, which stars Hayden Christensen as Glass and Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane, the magazine's presiding editor and Glass' reluctant but dedicated inquisitor.

So we know the start and the finish. What's in the middle of Shattered Glass? Nothing much. The film shares the predicament of other 2003 releases like Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans and Joel Schumacher's Veronica Guerin, in that the real-life scenarios which inspire these movies are richer and more commanding than any of the aesthetic work or analytical insight that the filmmakers apply to the material. This Crutch Factor, whereby directors and screenwriters especially assume that strong real-life drama equates to strong cinematic storytelling, is a disturbing tendency of which Shattered Glass is both the worst and the least interesting recent offender.

The most obvious reason to make this film is to give interesting, attention-grabbing parts to the two actors in the leading roles. This can hardly be construed as an automatic justification for the movie, though at least in one case, the actor in question delivers handily. Peter Sarsgaard, who made a stunning first impression on arthouse audiences as Brandon Teena's main antagonist in 1999's Boys Don't Cry, has spent the four ensuing years honorably contributing those plot-functionary supporting performances that propel forgettable studio pictures like Empire and K-19: The Widowmaker, roles which comprise the bread and butter for countless interesting actors who surface in independent film work and then wait for the laggard Hollywood studios to figure out what to do with them, or how to make them bankable. Sarsgaard has an interesting, brainy presence on-screen, reminiscent of other recent arthouse breakouts like Mark Ruffalo and Chloë Sevigny (his costar both here and in Boys Don't Cry). The power of these unlikely performers lies in their transfixing stillness, an absorbing-because-almost-invisible technique that is able to indicate and navigate a complicated, even high-strung interiority without seeming to move a muscle.

It stands to reason why Sarsgaard is a hard actor for Hollywood to cast, and also why Shattered Glass would appeal to him. Chuck Lane is a dignified but workaday presence in a fascinating but workaday profession; his status as a dramatic figure is entirely occasioned by Glass' elaborate transgressions, and even then, Lane is more of a figure of good conscience, rigorously adhering to the key principles of his job, than the kind of crusading, bound-breaking reporter who is usually the vehicle for getting this profession onscreen (think All the President's Men, Absence of Malice, or for that matter Veronica Guerin). Sarsgaard quietly draws us into the empathetic quandaries of a compassionate co-worker and family man whose suspicions against a well-liked colleague are nonetheless too forceful to ignore, and whose moral imperatives and future action are therefore made inevitable. Showboating this performance would be fatal, though many actors would die trying; if Lane came across as anything but a dutiful fulfiller of professional expectations, he would share rather than contrast the immature, exhibitionist drives that characterize Glass himself.

Sadly, these same immature and exhibitionist drives, do characterize the performance of Hayden "Anakin" Christensen, but not in a way that necessarily suits or, heaven forbid, textures or complicates the part. His wild impersonation of a wild impersonator is so obvious and clammy, it would wreck a better movie than Shattered Glass is anyway. If Sarsgaard is the kind of young actor you can imagine turning down Zemeckis for Chekhov, Christensen is the sort of overly managed, overly confident upstart who projects a dishearteningly Zemeckish soul and, worse, a misguided propensity to apologize and atone by peppering the ol' résum&233 with mod little dramas and character roles that he and his handlers like to imagine as "edgy." Before Attack of the Clones even bowed, we had to suffer the appalling Life as a House, in which Christensen wore heavy eye makeup, bared his tiny teeth in squishy Dramatic Scenes with senior ham-meister Kevin Kline, and spilled to the press about the cheeky, subversive pleasure he took in filming his big autoerotic asphyxiation scene.

Now, with Shattered Glass, of which Christensen's own brother is a listed producer, we have another stunningly overt attempt to prove that Hayden is More Than We Think, but the actor conducts himself less like a genuine thesp than like someone who overheard Glass' story at a party (maybe at Donatella's house?). The two emotions that register in the performance are the panic of a caught animal and the frenzied self-doubt that motivates his over-weening charade—in other words, the two aspects of Glass' personality and predicament that audience members can probably figure out on their own. But where is the charisma that would have gotten this fool hired in the first place? Where is the unctuous virtuosity, the self-aware ironic edge, maybe the sexual allure that allows Glass to brown-nose everyone in the office and get away with it? Christensen, moist and hamsterish (even without his little Star Wars rat-tail), intones Glass' favorite mantras over and over through the movie, especially the ubiquitous, "Are you mad at me?" The only sensible response to his cloying delivery is, "Yes, I am, until you start acting like someone who isn't a provoked, anxious liar, who is desperately out of his league and needs so badly to be loved!"

Captions, soundbites, and hearsay across the movie attempt to remind us that journalism as a field is rife with these particular Janus faces, egoistic head-cases who disguise themselves as doormats and sycophants (or is it vice versa?). We can't help noticing, though, that almost no one else onscreen acts like this; in fact, they don't even act like people who would put up with this behavior—certainly not Sevigny's cool and efficient writer/editor, who pleads most passionately on Glass' behalf, nor Hank Azaria's whipsmart but fatigued (and soon deposed) editor Michael Kelly. Melanie Lynskey, still feeling her way back to a bonafide movie career after her thunderous debut in Heavenly Creatures, plays a mousy fellow writer called Amy Brand who seems most closely to approximate Glass' discomfiting fragility. She even tries to write pieces in his style, which Sevigny's character notices right away. Go figure why Sevigny isn't as perceptive regarding Glass himself—but maybe she has some subliminal personal investment in his own auspicious success? A flattering self-image that arises from comparison and proximity to such an unlikely, prepossessing coworker?

Who knows. The very worst of the many failures of Shattered Glass is that it so insanely undercuts exactly the characters we're most curious about, scrupulously avoiding the questions that are most pressing within the material. The film is almost completely, totally lacking in context. The most arresting fact delivered in the entire picture is that the average age of The New Republic's senior staff is 26: this is a cohort where Hank friggin' Azaria ranks as the hale, weathered Den Papa. The self-styled "in-flight magazine of Air Force One" is written, organized, and edited by people who wonder what life will be like when they're as old as Monica and Chandler?

Now, that's surprising. That's interesting. But, after this early tidbit is dispatched to us, Shattered Glass virtually abandons any sociological probing into The New Republic's ideology and controlling demographic, substituting instead the more localized and banal office politics of the Kelly/Lane editorial changeover. For chrissakes, the editorial meetings that are the nerve center of the whole magazine—and dramatically crucial, because this is where Glass' sham article pitches are not just accepted but loudly huzzahed—are swept past us as quickly as possible as montage sequences. The nitty-gritty of periodical production and professional conflicts, which should lie at the heart of this movie, and also represent its surest shot at genuinely illuminating the whole Glass affair, are so nebulous that we never learn exactly how articles are vetted, copy-edited, or fact-checked until the questions about Glass have already been raised—which is also, of course, the point at which any dramatic suspense has been totally relinquished, since any person watching this movie probably knows its outcome.

And from that point, the movie just goes where we know it's going, and goes there, and goes there. Some cross-cutting detours are taken to the office of the internet magazine where Glass' inaccuracies and self-contradictions first set off major alarms. Steve Zahn (Out of Sight) and Rosario Dawson (25th Hour) work at this web-rag, but the staging of these scenes is so flat and the production design so cheap and anonymous that the enterprise looks like one of Glass' inventions. I could easily be wrong, but I'm guessing that the thudding irreality of these scenes is the product of creative license, streamlining what I suspect was a more complex network of skeptics and detectives into a dramatically snappier parallel "news" outfit.

That's not a sin, and in fact, it's what Hollywood movies do: they spin entertaining and illuminating stories, or proffer fabricated but meaningful sounds and images. In fact, it's the industry Glass should really have been working in, and it raises interesting questions about what the Dream Factory is doing not just telling Glass' story but making it into such a stern moral parable about artifice, deception, and misdirected needs for approval. I would pose the same questions to the extravagant horror and indignation that The New York Times and other major media outlets professed in the wake of last year's Jayson Blair imbroglio. Blair's infractions were obviously deplorable, especially given the particular ethical and affective weight of the September 11 eulogies and family histories he was caught spinning out of straw. But isn't it fair, nay necessary to ask: isn't the selling of Jayson Blair as criminal, as pariah, also an astute institutional means for implying the rectitude and swift justice that otherwise characterizes the Times? Isn't the tarred and feathered body of the outlaw always meant as an insistent symbol of the scapegoating community's contrasting virtue? And isn't this act almost invariably exposed as prejudiced, ambitious, and ideological in its own ways?

I wonder why Hollywood is so eager to tell Glass' story. Given the inevitability with which its "true-story" biographies are dissected and denounced as so much nipping and tucking (and I doubt Shattered Glass, with its patently pathetic Glass and lionized Lane is much of an exception), why on earth would Hollywood want to throw its hat into the ring of plagiarism witch-hunts and the bringing to justice of liars and artful dodgers?

Shattered Glass, it occurs to me, has been shepherded into cineplexes by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner's outfit, the same outfit that last year anointed Joe Carnahan's Narc as its indie-scene cause cél?bre. Narc, though superior in every way to Shattered Glass (strong performances, memorable score, tense photography), also sold its soul in the fifth act to the Gods of the Twist Ending, those pagan deities who've had Hollywood lapping out of their hands for years now. I personally trace the renaissance of the "twist" as an inherent badge of creativity and cleverness to 1995's one-two punch of Se7en and The Usual Suspects. Whatever its genealogy, this idea that good stories are simply surprising, that not everything is exactly what it appears, has recently become so synonymous with bold, accomplished screenwriting that I fear for the future of the craft. One can imagine Tom Cruise sitting at a private screening of Narc or Shattered Glass and crying out with all his surfer-boy wowability, "Holy shit! Never saw that coming!"

Never mind that both of the twists in Shattered Glass—not just that Glass is a liar, but that the film, at one narrative level, is also lying—are as clunky and clearly telegraphed as everything else in the script. Never mind that the whole issue of Glass' fabrications, in stories about skateboarding conventions and 'tween-age computer hackers, would have had infinitely higher stakes in relation to any other writer at a magazine like The New Republic: who cares if that stuff's made up? What's going on in all the political profiles, the policy explorations, the stuff they're apparently poring over on Air Force One—why do I feel like my attention is being ever more systematically drawn away from that material and its potential un-veracity? Glass' stories may have been inventions, but then again, everything we hear about them in the movie suggests them as a brand of "journalism" that we'd do just as well without, and the whole point of which is probably to anaesthetize our attention from more important matters.

Never mind any of this, cry Cruise and Christensen and this upstart Billy Ray: please just watch this "edgy" parable of a modern boy who cried wolf, and then see if the movie doesn't pull out another rug out from under you anyway. Ha! Gotcha! Movies are quickly becoming games of Gotcha, as though the point of seeing movies was to be or not to be "got." Shattered Glass is like a new acme/nadir of this form: a movie in which provocative and worthy issues are held firmly in an inverse relationship to screen time, and in which the most promising characters, played by exciting actors from whom we've all been waiting to see more work, are pushed to the sidelines so that Hollywood's latest boy toy can preen, pout, and overact. This might be the grouchiest review I've yet written at NicksFlickPicks, but it's that kind of movie, as simple and superficial as the lame pun in its title. I'll raise the pun one better, and say that Shattered Glass is as thin and frail as it sounds. D+

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Peter Sarsgaard

Other Awards:
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actor (Sarsgaard)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actor (Sarsgaard)
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

Permalink Home 2003 ABC Blog E-Mail