All the News Fit To Print, and Then Some
Famousness, that ability to attract the public eye, is arguably the great discernible talent of our heroes and villains. Seemingly every field has its superstars, even to the ivy-walled groves of academe, in the feeding frenzy fueled by a media that, through stars of its own, short shrifts news in favor of names. Over fast-food gobbles, the pressure to produce and thus rise above the crowd, becomes irresistible.
Within limits of veracity and rectitude, freedom of the press was guaranteed by the First Amendment in 1791, and Benjamin Franklin established the Post Office Department with newspaper distribution expressly in mind. Those Founding Fathers would be aghast at the turns of today's Murdoch-tailored media, where all is fair in love and war and business goes on as usual in spite of a recent flurry of public whippings and high-profile firings at several respected publications.
The heavyweight of such cases to date occurred at the venerable (1914) events and policy review The New Republic, where young Stephen Glass was a rising staff writer and sought-after freelancer for other name journals. Screenwriter (from a 1998 H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger article of the same name) and novice director Billy Ray's Shattered Glass deserves A-marks for covering and explaining the episode in a low-key but professional manner that neither crucifies nor exonerates while raising questions of personal, social and political integrity.
Gathering a fine cast and coaxing impressive performances from Hayden Christensen as Glass and Peter Sarsgaard in the delicate part of new editor-chosen-from-the-ranks Chuck Lane, Ray unfolds his "inside" story through flashback, narration, imagined scenes, group brainstormings, telephone conversations and, subtly, through nearly throwaway details such as the book titles on office shelves.
In an opening monologue, Glass himself deplores journalistic egotism and philosophizes that memorable stories are made not by content so much as by people and "letting [them] tell the story, which wins Pulitzers, too, like Woodward and Bernstein." Even among the frighteningly young TNR staff -- fifteen writer/editors; median age, twenty-six -- he is smooth-faced and bespectacled and so merges easily into the speaker who addresses a Maryland secondary school journalism class, advising "responsibility," never "doing anything fake, phony," and protecting oneself with note-taking.
Already held in something resembling awe for his catchy (usually two-word) titles, unique slant and fluid popular style, he is the great white hope of his troubled journal, liberal New Dealish with a look of the passé '80s, a most modest circulation of 81,500, and stiffening competition from glossier others that feature photographs. Falsely humble in speech and camaraderie as one of the boys, the young man is flushed with his success and widening contacts, though under the façade lurks the tense insecurity of a scared naughty child.
When his (and others') mentor, Editor Mike Kelly (Hank Azaria), is removed in a wake-up call, Glass grouses suspicions with the others about replacement Lane, so lately one of their own. They do not know of Lane's reservations, revealed at his home during a for-once dramatic telephone call, nor of the immediate problem facing him. Taunted by his editor at the now-disappeared online Forbes Digital Tool, reporter Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) uncovers several inconsistencies in Glass' recent article. Exposing cynical collusion, blackmail and payoffs involving a Silicon Valley software company and a pimpled teenage hacker and his agent at a convention, "Hacker Heaven" is filled with Glass' signature details, many of which simply do not check out.
Trying to protect his staff and win support as yet begrudged him, Lane begins a hidden investigation, initially on his own and soon in conjunction with Penenberg and the FDT editor. Generous with advice and encouragement to others, to a nervous newcomer Glass proudly expounds his journal's double- and triple-fact-check safeguards, even as doubts are confirmed not only about the latest piece but also two-thirds of his previous forty-one contributions.
Confronted on the Q.T., Glass insists on the total integrity of his reporting. Soon, however, admitting to first one lapse and then another, and another, he seeks to ingratiate himself with potential allies but, this failing, his hysteria seeps to the surface as he whines, cries like a crocodile and cajoles. The final, revelatory journalism classroom is indeed an emotional scene, but, while the director denies either an attack on or justification of the ruined young man, Christensen's journalist emerges as a despicable self-server undeserving of anyone's tears. Forgiveness is divine, but there is troubling irony in end-titles indicating that Glass now writes fiction in New York City.
Hoping that Shattered Glass will have a salutary effect on public and corporate, profit-driven media, Ray has interviewed participants and researched his film facts. Pointing out that some characters are straightforwardly one-to-one, others really composite portraits, the director sees the work as a cautionary tale: if faith erodes in truth and ethics, these very qualities become subjective, situational, negotiable.
Alternating backwards and forwards, occurring largely in well-lit but confined workplaces, the finished product successfully dramatizes individual dilemma that carries over into major social implications. Like a good old movie, unspectacularly, it is effective and provocative.
(Released by Lions Gate and rated "PG-13" for language, sexual references and brief drug use.)