November 23, 2003
Like a Bright Light
It’s hard not to look away.
At talent shows and open mic nights, when the performer isn’t very good, I always look away. I used to do the same thing in college when a classmate was getting grilled by a prof. Or when a guest is floundering on a late-night talk show — I do it then, too.
Tell me if this is familiar:
You turn your head to the side, maybe squint a little. The response is mostly involuntary, and it’s probably rooted in vicarious shame. Somehow another person’s embarrassment hurts to look at, like a bright light, whether it’s in person, on TV, or in a movie.
I saw “Shattered Glass” (IMDB listing, Rotten Tomatoes page) tonight, and I spent most of the second half of the movie looking away. Whenever Hayden Christensen squirmed across the screen as Stephen Glass, I’d pull my baseball cap down over my eyes in the darkness.
But then I’d think, Wait, I paid six bucks for this. I ought to actually watch it.
So I’d look back up. And there, in scene after scene, I saw the core of the movie: Stephen Glass sniveling, and Chuck Lane staring at him.
(Stephen Glass was a journalist who fabricated a bunch of stories at The New Republic. Chuck Lane was his editor. Here’s the NYT summary for more. What do you think this is, a real movie review?)
Actors are good at getting us to sympathize with them. Hayden Christensen is good at it. So was Stephen Glass, apparently.
And sympathy is fine for movies. But in real life, sometimes it can be a cop out. It’s always easy to go soft on somebody, to give them another chance. If you’re understanding, Stephen Glass can wipe his nose and smile and get back to work. If you’re sympathetic, nobody gets upset.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Chuck Lane in “Shattered Glass.” While Glass blabs away — a torrent of excuses, mitigations, lies — Lane doesn’t speak. He doesn’t sneer. (And I think it would have been natural for Sarsgaard to throw in a few lip-curls; I certainly did.) He doesn’t rage.
No, Lane just watches, without sympathy and, until the very end, without anger.
So what does that tell us? That this movie isn’t about being angry, or indignant, or righteous. It’s about being tough and true, and mostly, it’s about not looking away from something that’s shameful.
Well, I admit it, I looked away. I’ll have to rent the DVD and try again.