revisiting Shattered Glass
July 19, 2006
As part of a continuing project, I yesterday decided to rewatch the 2003 film Shattered Glass, based on the exploits of former New Republic contributor Stephen Glass, who fabricated parts of dozens of pieces during his time there, all in an effort to create stories whose unusually vivid quotes and descriptions would captivate all who read them. It’s very nearly a documentary: the actors are merely stand-ins (albeit more attractive ones) for real people, and the dialogue has an appropriately raw, unrehearsed quality that is breathtaking at times. Like the classic All The President’s Men, Glass is a detective story, with editor Charles Lane (an excellent Peter Sarsgaard) uncovering, layer by layer, the bizarre pattern of deception that surrounded rising star Glass’ (Hayden Christensen) brief career at the magazine, leading ultimately to the appalling truth (and Glass’ firing). Even though the events of that film were on a much grander scale, I think Glass holds its own as a thrilling yet saddening portrayal of a life gone horribly wrong.
Glass forged strong relationships with his co-workers with constant compliments, offers of assistance, and self-deprecation, and Christensen delivers them all with an air of both deeply-seated vulnerability and sinister sentimentality. It’s riveting, and somehow repulsive. The toll of his daily deceptions is readily apparent even before his world begins to crumble, with even the most minor of questions receiving the defensive and mildly fearful reply, “did I do something wrong?” and the slightest admonition provoking stream of apologies. And even as mounting editorial criticisms and the investigation of an online magazine, Forbes Digital, threaten to overwhelm him, Glass remains frighteningly defiant in the face of Lane’s probing inquiries–“I’m not a criminal, Chuck!” and “I didn’t do anything wrong!” are his angry retorts. At last it becomes too much. He is reduced to tears, whining, and despair, but there is no pity in Sarsgaard’s angry and exhausted eyes; it’s over.
The passionate pursuit of the truth is at the heart of journalism, and the failings of Stephen Glass in that pursuit are central to this film’s remarkable magnetism; it’s painful to see such incredible talent so foolishly squandered. And in the end, there remains only one question: is he sorry?
For the answer, I turned to a 60 Minutes interview with the real Stephen Glass included on the DVD as a special feature. Following the events depicted in the film, which took place in 1998, Glass apparently spent nearly five years in “therapy”–it isn’t said what sort–and this interview finds him sometime after. While he freely admits fabricating many aspects of his work at TNR and talks at length about his desire to be “loved” by his readers as his reason for doing so, he never, explicitly or otherwise, says anything to suggest that he thinks his actions were wrong. His brilliance and earnestness are palpable with every impassioned rejection of the interviewer’s assertion that Glass might, in fact, be lying even now, but that those same traits helped him deceive others so successfully before casts a long shadow on his testimony. I’m not convinced, to be honest.
–D. S. W.