Sean T. Collins has written about comics and popular culture professionally since 2001 and on this very blog since 2003. He has written for Maxim, The Comics Journal, Stuff, Wizard, A&F Quarterly, Comic Book Resources, Giant, ToyFare, The Onion, The Comics Reporter and more. His comics have been published by Top Shelf, Partyka, and Family Style. He blogs here and at Robot 6.
Amy's Hayden Christensen fixation gave me an excuse to finally watch Shattered Glass last night. I sure am glad I did: It's one of the most fascinating cinematic examinations of sociopathy I've ever seen, and trust me, I've seen a lot of cinematic examinations of sociopathy.
The film recounts the true story (perhaps the only true story with which its main character was ever associated) of Stephen Glass, a wunderkind writer and associate editor at The New Republic whose almost superhuman solicitousness toward his friends and colleagues enabled him to mask the fact that he was fabricating story after story out of whole cloth. That's really the most striking aspect of the film (aside from Christensen's performance, about which more later): These articles were chock-a-block full of just the most enormous whoppers you could possibly imagine. Glass didn't just fudge quotes, rely on dubious information, or abuse anonymous sourcing--he was just making shit up, left right and center. People, places, organizations, documents, events, all 100% hot air. And this wasn't even done in support of something resembling a real story somewhere down deep--Many of his stories didn't even contain a kernel of truth at the center at all. The lying is so wide, deep, and bold that even as a well-informed viewer who knows exactly what's going to happen in the movie, there's still a shock factor at play: "Noooo. It can't be!"
That's just the thing: It can't be, or at the very least it damn well shouldn't have been. Glass was a master at gaming his magazine's fact-checking system, one that he apparently helped set up and operate during his early days at TNR. Essentially, much of the fact-checking consisted of comparing a draft of a piece against the piece's author's notes; in a display of pretty stunning credulity considering the line of work of the people involved, no one imagined that those notes themselves could be miniature mockumentaries. However, this doesn't excuse, or even explain, how some of Glass's bullroar got published. It's one thing to take a reporter's word for it when it comes to the existence of a quote, or even a source; but when he's inventing bills that are supposedly being debated in over 20 state legislatures, or "major" Silicon Valley firms that nevertheless have the kind of rudimentary websites that students are required to code up for introductory electrical engineering courses in college--well, shit, people, how 'bout making some damn phone calls, or using Yahoo, or applying even an iota of common sense? And it's not just TNR that Glass punked; Glass was probably doubling his salary from freelance work at that time, so maybe a dozen other outlets were suckered as well. Whatever weakness in the system he exploited, it was endemic.
The film itself is as successful as it is thanks to a pair of very strong performances from its antagonistic leads. The much-maligned Christensen is a doozy as Glass, playing him as an abscess of both need and breathtaking duplicity who inspires protective, almost parental instincts in nearly everyone around him even though he's rocketing past them toward fame and fortune. He reminded me of another out-of-nowhere knockout performance, that of Mark Wahlberg as Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, especially toward the final third of that film. Christensen's Glass is basically a big baby, with all the moral development of a toddler. He still sees the entire world exclusively in terms of how it affects him. He's learned how he should act to please those he needs to please, how to be seen as a good boy; he knows how to hide actions that would upset that image, hide them so well that the thought of him doing such things is inconceivable to those around him; but he does it all so that he can do and get exactly what he wants. And one he's caught, he simply can't stop play-acting; one terrific moment shows Glass loitering in the TNR office--even begging his now-ex-boss to watch over him lest he off himself--long after both the boss and we the viewers have assumed he's exited the building for good. Watching Christensen unravel over the course of the film is like watching a particularly spoiled little brat get caught and punished for doing something malicious--it's satisfying, deeply so in fact, but at the same time extremely unpleasant. It's good that the punishment happened, but there's just something wrong with having to watch it happen at all.
The other terrific turn is from Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Glass's editor Chuck Lane. Lane was apparently an unpopular figure at TNR, taking over for the adored, freshly fired Michael Kelly without much support from his colleagues; circumstance pitted him against Glass, who to hear tell from those who knew him was the most popular guy at the magazine. Every iota of this sense of impotence (inferority even) finds its way into Sarsgaard's magnificently muted facial expressions, as disbelief, dread, and rage fight a three-way battle as Lane uncovers the truth. Before Lane ascends to the editorship of the magazine, there's a wonderful moment early on when, asked to discuss the decidedly dry article he's working on right after a tour-de-force, almost burlesque pitch from Glass on yet another absurdly killer story, can only chuckle helplessly, "That's a tough act to follow...heh heh...uh...a really tough act...ha ha." Sarsgaard plays it perfectly, and his vindication (though hit on a touch too heavily in the film's final scene) is wonderful to watch, especially because his Lane doesn't seem to desire vindication at all--showing only a quietly furious desire to get to the bottom of the mess he's found himself in.
A few other thoughts:
1) I found it amusing that they'd occasionally cut to scenes of Lane returning home to his wife and baby after a hard day's work. This is the hallmark of the "dogged investigator on the trail of master criminal" genre--I've seen it in films as wide-ranging as The Untouchables and Citizen X--but it's still funny to see it in a movie that's not about a G-man working to bring down a mob kingpin or a forensic investigator hunting for a serial killer, but an editor trying to fact-check one of his writers.
2) There are some really intriguing games being played here with identity. Judging from the cursory research I've done and the 60 Minutes interview with some of the principals that's included as a special feature on the DVD, most of the major players in this scandal were, in real life, Jewish; in the film, they're goyischized almost to a man. Glass is played by a man whose last name is Christensen, and I'm sure I don't need to tell you what a poster boy for WASPy beauty he is; ditto Glass's co-worker and close friend Hanna Rosin, an Israeli-born brunette who in the movie is played by a very blonde Chloe Sevigny and is named Caitlin (!). I haven't seen anything that leads me to believe that these and other characters aren't being portrayed realistically, but given the film's preoccupation with how facts "need" to be glamorized to become good stories, it's funny to watch the usual Hollywoodification at work here.
3) Another identity issue: Is he or isn't he? There's a scene in which Glass doth protest too much about how people think he's gay, said protest occasioned by a meeting with another journalist who, in Glass's own words, ended up with his tongue down Glass's throat. That he's saying this to a manque of TNR's Jonathan Chait, who, for the purposes of the film, has been transformed into a young woman, makes it doubly interesting. The movie continuously plays up angles between Glass, Sevigny's Caitlin, and Melanie Lynskey (still working after Heavenly Creatures! Alright!)'s Chait-esque character that are potentially sexual or romantic, or perhaps incestuous is the right word; in these cases, and in the case of the adoring female high-school journalists who hang on Glass's every word when he comes to lecture their class on his career, the filmmakers clearly see sex and gender as an issue. Now if I had to make a snap judgement based on Glass's 60 Minutes interview I'd say he was gay, but if he is he's not saying; indeed, in his thinly veiled autobiographical novel The Fabulist, he apparently is quite the ladies' man. What gives? Is it just another level on which, to quote Roxy Music, "what's real and make-believe" are duking it out for supremacy?
4) Having spent a good deal of time recently immersed in works of fiction that purport to be non-fiction (though obviously with a lot more transparency than Glass's stuff, and with an entirely different motive), it's been an odd and somewhat thrilling experience to watch a film that's a slightly fictionalized account of a non-fictional scandal involving fiction in the guise of non-fiction. Thanks to the Internet, you can still see the veryinternet-journalismpieces that broke the story (written by Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson, in the film at least), which itself creates a mental echo with the bogus website Glass created to shore up one of his fabrications. Hall of mirrors, rabbit hole, et cetera.
5) Small moment I liked: Zahn and Dawson fighting over who gets the byline for the article exposing the fraud perpetrated by a writer crazed with the notion of getting his byline out there. Sharp.
6) Please resist the temptation to name your essay about Stephen Glass "Glass Houses." Trust me--it's been done.
A fine film. Rent it.
Postscript: I recently ordered a copy of the movie Dahmer, which I think dovetails nicely with this movie. Perhaps I'll write about that sometime soon.