Jul 09 2008
Ten years ago, The New Republic magazine, reportedly the inflight magazine of Air Force One, published an issue which contained the now infamous Stephen Glass article, Hack Heaven. The article, a clever coup for such a young journalist (aged 26), told the story of a young hacker who, instead of being sued, is hired by Jukt Micronics after he successfully hacked their system. The kid becomes wealthy overnight and even has his own agent. The story is a sensation and Glass confirmed his status as a great journalist within the close-knit group at The New Republic.
It was then that he began to gain attention from his rivals at Forbes Digital, a technology webzine. Annoyed at being scooped by The New Republic, and in an effort to do a follow up story, Adam Penenberg of Forbes began fact checking Glass‘s article and immediately began to see holes. He could find no existence of Jukt Micronics, nor the wealthy hacker or his manager. Thinking he had discovered that the great New Republic had been duped, he got very excited about this new story and went about contacting Charles ‘Chuck’ Lane, editor of New Republic. From this point on things begin to unravel for Glass as he is unable to sufficiently answer any of the questions posed to him about the origins and veracity of his article. In a very short space of time Lane confronts Glass over this story and others he has written both during Lane‘s tenure and during the tenure of Michael Kelly, the previous editor. It becomes apparent that many of the facts in Glass‘s articles have been fabricated and in even more cases the entire stories were fiction. The acclaimed New Republic had been publishing fictitious articles and the scandal was about to break.
The true story of the events of Stephen Glass and The New Republic magazine are now legendary and is a cautionary tale for modern news publishers everywhere. Director and writer Billy Ray did an incredible job of bringing this incendiary story to the big screen. His first foray into directing will guarantee him a bright and strong future in the field.
Looking at the story, firstly: it is a tale that is well known and though the final moment, where the full extent of Glass‘s lies is revealed, is completely inevitable, Billy Ray managed to tell the story with nail-biting suspense, wringing every bit of juice from the story without dragging it out. From the hopeful open scenes, where Glass, in ‘flashback’, is lecturing to a class of student journalists, through to his first errors where he uses his amiable boylike charm to squirm out of difficulty, on to his final admissions of guilt, harangued from him by Lane, a man in a highly unenviable position, the story plays out with pace and style reminiscent of All The Presidents Men, a film which is seen by many as the quintessential movie about journalistic integrity.
Ray‘s direction is impeccable as he draws us into the story in such a way that we truly care for every character in it. His sparse use of music and the ease at which he allows scenes to unravel without forcing the point, particularly when showing us Penenberg and Forbe‘s side of the story, makes this movie artistically beautiful, without losing any of the entertainment value and pace needed to keep us on the edge of our seats.
But it is his casting that his genius shines: in the hands of George Lucas, Hayden Christensen is a wooden puppet, but as Stephen Glass he is sensational, balancing upon the high wire act of maintaining his golden boy image while the fraudulent weasel hides beneath. Remarkably, though surrounded by some very likeable characters who Glass lies to and manipulates, the true genius of this movie lies in the fact that we are rooting for Glass right the way to the end. It’s impossible not to like Christensen‘s heavily flawed anti-hero.
And his co-stars are equally impressive. Chloë Sevigny, as Caitlin Avery, is almost a big sister to Glass, protecting him from criticism, while criticising him herself for being so modest and not demanding more respect from those around him. She has been completely taken in by his charm and her eventual let down is beautifully emotional.
Steve Zahn as Penenberg and Rosario Dawson as his cut-throat colleague, Andy Fox, are the movie’s examples of ‘real’ journalists, who chase stories, demand credit and dispense with the niceties when a story is breaking. They not only further the plot, but also provide an excellent contrast to Glass‘s goody-two-shoes attitude. One suspects that if he had been working at Forbes Digital, they would have seen through him far sooner.
But huge credit must be given to Peter Sarsgaard for his role as Chuck Lane, who takes over from his predecessor (Michael Kelly, played by a very solid Hank Azaria) at a time when the magazine is resenting the hierarchy who are demanding big changes from its writers. Where Kelly was willing to lose his job to defend his staff, Lane is seen as a backstabber, walking over Kelly‘s still warm grave. Throughout the film, we are presented with his story, as much as Glass‘s, as we are shown his emotional turmoil, the pressure he is receiving from above as well as the disdain he receives from his staffers. As he is being tugged from all sides, he must then uncover the truth behind Glass‘s lies and save the magazine’s reputation. He has a number of wonderful scenes in the latter half of the movie, including one particularly moving moment in the closing minutes of the film. An Oscar worthy performance.
The negatives in this movie are not numerous. Glass‘s good boy image is perhaps a little fake and the narrative structure based around his lecture to journalism students is not required. It seems to take us away from the story rather than further it. Although, the irony of Stephen Glass lecturing students on journalistic integrity is clever – it is a joke that quickly wears thin.
Additionally, it might have been interesting to see some of his other faked articles explored onscreen, but this is not a real negative – it is more a testament to how well the stories Hack Heaven and Spring Breakdown play out.
Released in 2004 (2003 in the US), Shattered Glass went mostly overlooked by the public though received wide critical praise. If it’s only success was to show that Hayden Christensen was hiding some great acting talent, then this film should be heralded. But it did so much more – it is a dramatic piece about integrity without ever becoming preachy; it is emotional without falling into the love story trap or slipping down the slopes of sop; it tells a well known story with such tension and pace that I found myself on the edge of my seat, even though I knew how it would end. Director Billy Ray has created a classic movie that will be watched by film students and potential journalists for years to come.