November 23, 2003
Is it possible to make a movie out of someone like Stephen Glass and not glorify him?
My strongest reaction to seeing “Shattered Glass” yesterday is the desire to read all of his fabricated stories from The New Republic. Seeing as how the magazine has removed those articles from its web archives, and my curiosity isn’t strong enough to fuel a visit to an actual library to read the articles, I have to satisfy myself with reading the transcript of his 60 Minutes interview, a few of his former associates’ takes on his new novel and movie, and his [partially? completely?] fabricated work for Harper’s.
“Shattered Glass” anticipates these impulses, and spends its second half punishing me for having them. For thinking that Peter Sarsgaard’s two-dimensional Chuck Lane really is humorless and self-righteous. And that even if Hayden Christensen’s Stephen Glass is a conniving psychopath, he’s also a clever, self-deprecating wunderkind whose imagination only outstripped his conscience. (And besides, the chap had the decency to provide us with a name divinely outfitted for plays-on-words — “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Glass Houses,” “Stained Glass,” etc.)
The movie sets us up with a first half that trumps its protagonists up to near-mythic status — starting with The New Republic, which through this movie’s lens becomes America’s Most Influential and Respected Bastion of Journalistic Integrity. Michael Kelly is the editor so loving of his writers he can’t see their deepest flaws. Chuck Lane is the eerily constant journalist whose only loyalties in life are to truth and the magazine, which renders him morally sympathetic, if not quite human. And Stephen Glass is the most brilliant weaver of yarns this side of Twain.
The film’s first half does an admirable job of configuring Glass as hero and Lane as anti-hero. Even knowing how the story ends, you are supposed to be taken in by the fabricator. After all, if we aren’t charmed by Glass, then the characters in the film become mere dupes. Meanwhile, all around the edges of Lane’s character lurk these hints of flaws — jealousy, treachery, hypocrisy, self-righteousness — that blend to create a damning, yet flat, portrait of the man. We get small sequences intended to soften this portrait — Lane coddling his infant daughter, Lane hesitating to accept a prestigious promotion that would detriment his friend — but they’re transparent, half-hearted efforts to humanize him (by his own admission, he hesitates at least partially out of a sense of self-preservation).
The second half reverses this setup somewhat. Lane’s still an anti-hero, but now Glass is, too. And, because we know Lane has been ostracized for his colleagues for being right, we begin to sympathize with him, while we begin to despise his rival.
And despise him we must. By act three, Glass’ ever-more-desperate cycle of deception is painfully pathetic. Here, though, is where the movie lets me down. Because, honestly, Lane’s monomania is rather pathetic as well. In a scene where Lane attempts to convince two other editors of the magazine of the trenchant seriousness of Glass’ crimes, I couldn’t help but picture the film’s director laughing at him — “Don’t you see what he’s done??!! He … he LIED!!”
Don’t get me wrong. What Glass did to the magazine and to the profession was awful. But at the same time that the film has completely deflated Glass into this pathetic, blubbering kid, it attempts to inflate Lane into some sort of towering Dimmesdale, thundering from on high with all the moral authority of the AP Stylebook behind him. I don’t think the gambit quite succeeds the way it was, perhaps, intended to.
If Glass is that unwatchably pathetic, then Lane’s gotta be at least a little pathetic, and hey, we’re all watching this guy’s biopic and ostensibly serving as the market for the book for which this pathetic little guy got a six-figure advance, so we’re a little pathetic too, eh?
So for me, the greatest thing the movie leaves me with is a curiosity about this guy that was so compelling (or not) that I just forked out six bucks and two hours to watch a movie about his life. Which is why I’m sitting here, reading his at-least-partially-fabricated article for Harper’s, giggling at the little extra-textual frissons I get from deliciously ironic passages like the following:
I leave work fifteen minutes early armed with six issues of American Astrology and a place mat I nab from a Chinese restaurant that tells you what animal year you were born in. I am a rat, which seems particularly appropriate.
— Stephen Glass