The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of a Fabulist

By Fernando F. Croce

Has it already been that long since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal? Shattered Glass is the second film released within a week to look back at the stains 'n' cigars affair, with The Human Stain right on its heels. Both movies use it as background zeitgeist for tales of deception and hypocrisy, and Slick Willy's spirit hovers over Shattered Glass own yarn-spinning protagonist, Stephen Glass.

Glass, you will remember, was the promising young writer for The New Republic, who in the late '90s reached whiz-kid status at the age of 26 with a batch of splashy, too-good-to-be-true articles. As it turned out, they really were too good to be true: it was discovered that no fewer than 27 of Glass' 41 published articles were completely fabricated, and in a flash he went from upstart to pariah... That is, until he turned his own notorious story into a juicily self- aggrandizing bestseller.

In the film, adapted by first-time director Billy Ray from a Vanity Fair article, Glass (played by Hayden Christensen of Anakin Skywalker fame) is a canny careerist, breezing into the office and turning on twerpy charm and boyish vulnerability on co-worker and superior alike. The image he's crafted for himself is one of calculated eagerness-to- please, of a bright kid blithely dealing with pressures "when greatness is demanded of you" (as a teacher gushes during a trip to a classroom of awestruck students). Glass' bad luck is in having one of his articles picked up by Adam Penenberg (the always welcome Steve Zahn), a writer at the now-defunct Forbes Digital Tool -- the story, about a hacker convention, crumbles under the weight of basic fact-checking, and The New Republic's boy wonder is uncloaked as a baby con-man. It is up to Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), the resented replacement to beloved editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), to decide what to do with him.

Glass committed a journalistic cardinal sin, abusing the trust between writers and editors in the process -- despite his ass-covering whining about the pressures of writing for the "in-flight-magazine of Air Force One," he gets no sympathy from this reporter. (In fact, I got a kick out of watching him sweat and squirm in the later scenes of the movie.) And yet, the movie asks, is he a compulsive fabricator or simply somebody who knew how to tell people what they wanted to hear, fiction or fact being beside the point?

That's where things get interesting. A few critics have compared the movie to Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men -- Shattering Glass doesn't have the stylistic rigor of that film (its bland, functional visual style is like efficient TV, not as good as, say, an episode of The West Wing), but a thematic comparison can be useful. Both pictures could be seen as unconscious searches for a father figure, in Pakula's to overthrow it as a response to '70s breakdown and Nixonian betrayal, leading to Watergate, and in the new picture to restore it amid late '90s Clintonian hypocrisy. Bernstein and Woodward, the protagonists of All the President's Men, were crusading adults; the Stephen Glass of Shattering Glass, though 26, is but a slick child. His mantra ("Are you mad at me?") is a childish whimper, and his relationship with women (Chloe Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey as his co-workers) completely presexual. His articles, even when dealing with young Republicans as frat-house boozers on the make, are devoid of threat or insight, the readers instead encouraged to feel superior as established values are ingeniously, entertainingly reinforced.

In other words, a "child" pushing for a return to the womb during traumatic times, going backward instead of forward. It's only fitting that Glass found a nurturing spot at The New Republic, where all his charm and confidence could be channeled into not simply inventing facts, but also inventing an old-fashioned family out of the staff. Glass' desperation near the end stems as much from the unveiling of his lies as from the crumbling of this fabricated family, the "father" (Sarsgaard's disgusted editor) punishing him by banishing him, despite protests from his "sisters" (Sevigny and Lynskey).

Shattered Glass is intelligent and shrewd enough to keep Glass at a distance, offering bits and pieces for contemplation without overtly speculating how they come together. In Christensen's revelatory incarnation, he comes off as a bastardized yet central offshoot of a culture where entertainment is often valued over journalistic truth, serving the system even if it means breaking its rules. The underlying irony is not that Glass has now reinvented himself again and been apparently forgiven (with fellow huckster Jayson Blair in close pursuit), but that a society can profess outrage and condemn and repudiate such creatures without ever realizing how much it contributed to creating them in the first place.

Originally published in The Spartan Daily on November 7, 2003.

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