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Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass centres something more important than affability

Another film could have told the story of The New Republic prodigy and serial liar Stephen Glass with bombastic, paranoia-tinged intensity, the kind that defines Alan Pakula’s trilogy of films about far-reaching corruption. Or it could have resembled one of the less stinging, more commercial chillers from the shoulder-padded 1990s, like Primal Fear. In those moments where Glass’s ruse is first exposed, we’re almost waiting for the binary melody of a score by Philip Glass (no relation) to fade into the soundtrack, and the camera to start rushing down corridors at full speed. But while it is always fun to see characters in big coats dashing about as the enormity of the sick and twisted truth finally dawns on them, the fact that Shattered Glass does not have any such scenes only makes it creepier. The difference between those thrillers and this film is that here, all the lies were the creations of just one man. Though they depended on and implicated all the fact checkers, rereaders and bosses who trusted, helped, and even stood by Glass, these fabrications were not part of a conspiracy — this deception did not go “all the way to the top.” There is no need for the person who eventually uncovers those lies to rush about in pursuit of the perpetrators, or to run away from a system that has turned out to be rotten through-and-through: the single culprit has been right in front of them the entire time. The loneliness of Glass’s scheme, and the relative insignificance of what he gained by it, are precisely what make his story so bone-chilling. 

Director and writer Billy Ray opens Shattered Glass on Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), the man who gives the film its pun of a title, while he is on a visit to his former high school. Smiley, confident yet bashful — especially under the continuous praise of his former teacher — he tells attentive young students many big, important words about the value and the work of journalism, and what led him towards this noble career. The youngest journalist in The New Republic’s history, Glass at that moment is a success story, but we know — either from the news or from the film’s title alone — that this is the tale of his downfall. From the very first scene, Glass has the floor, and we even hear his words in voiceover; later on, as the film centres on his daily life at The New Republic, he is portrayed as the funniest, most popular guy at the office, a well-liked colleague to all, present in every scene. All signs point to him being the lead character, and this film being his portrait. We expect to get an insight into his thoughts, and to witness the unfortunate circumstances or errors of judgement that led him to ignore some of the most important principles of journalism and lie to everyone. But we don’t.

The focus instead slowly but surely shifts to the character that seems the least likely to become the leading protagonist. Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), shunned by his colleagues from the start and generally perceived as a bore, becomes even more unpopular after the publisher decides that he should replace beloved editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria). Already struggling to lead a team that feels no loyalty to him whatsoever, Lane soon finds himself burdened with another nagging worry when Glass, asked to provide contact details for the sources on his latest piece so that the fact checkers may do their job, comes up with increasingly convoluted reasons why it is so difficult to reach them. 

And so what looked like it would be a film about the spirited adventure of a young journalist chasing after some good stories instead turns out to be a much stranger, more uncomfortable offering, about a tired and somewhat boring magazine editor making a series of phone calls. It sounds dour, but it isn’t, in large part thanks to the work of Sarsgaard and Christensen, but also the rest of the cast. 

Throughout his career, Sarsgaard — like his wife Maggie Gyllenhaal — has favoured a kind of psychologically complex, sometimes uncomfortable cinema eager to dwell in in-between states and emotions, and sometimes in taboo. Even his initially  “big” performance in Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter eventually makes way for a more subdued turn, which helps to bring out the subtleties and psychological complexities of the film — precisely what Sarsgaard does best in most of his work. When Lane in Shattered Glass starts to suspect that something might be wrong with his young prodigy’s articles, Sarsgaard does not overplay the character’s worry or surprise; yet far from vacant or inexpressive, his relatively calm reaction in fact tells us an enormous amount about Lane’s wider reality. Sarsgaard’s perfectly calibrated performance hints at a wider world of journalism just out of frame, one where a magazine editor such as Lane simply cannot afford to lose his cool every time something appears to be wrong. The actor’s not-at-all Hollywood-like depiction anchors the film in a realistic and reasonable reality, one that we can infer from his performance long before it is explicitly shown to us: Lane, while trying to figure out what Glass might have done, is still shown going home to his wife and baby at reasonable hours, sleeping in bed rather than the office, and generally maintaining a healthy lifestyle. 

Christensen’s performance tells a different story, though one that only makes complete sense once the truth is revealed. Glass is well-liked by his colleagues, who always laugh at his jokes and love his audacious feature ideas, and Christensen plays him with a constantly blank or mildly pleased expression that could easily pass for confidence, even intelligence. But beyond his natural pretty-boy charm, the role also allows Christensen to put his shaky, not-at-all Vader-like voice to good use as the outward signifier of a young man’s extreme eagerness to please. Though his Glass often successfully makes this anxiety pass for mere generosity, it shines through in his repetitions of “are you mad at me?” and his rare but notable and awkward faux-pas in casual conversations. Christensen’s performance is extremely strange and at first basically indecipherable, but it fits into a very strange movie in which no one initially seems at all weirded out by Glass’s inconsistent behaviour. 

In fact, it would be fair to say that the filmmakers made a huge gamble in simply hoping that their audience would be patient enough to wait until all was revealed and Christensen’s odd demeanour finally made sense. But the actor’s somewhat baffling, awkward turn also feels of a piece with (and is legitimised by) the work of the other actors around him. Though the other members of the editorial team are nowhere near as peculiar as Glass, they are not blanks or foils either, and besides having to deal with hundreds of various crises a week, a magazine editor like Sarsgaard’s Lane probably also has to manage many different unusual personalities day in, day out. After all, his suspicions about Glass’ ethics are based on his failure to follow protocol, not on what a weirdo he is — an aspect of the man Lane was not just willing to overlook, but simply had no interest in. 

Melanie Lynskey plays fictional journalist Amy Brand, a soft-spoken, somewhat shy colleague of Glass envious of his success not just at The New Republic, but also with other prestigious magazines seeking him out. She tries her hand at his more conspiratorial, personal writing style, but that doesn’t change the fact that her “boring” assignments simply aren’t glamorous. In short, Brand is the mirror opposite of the cliched passionate reporter, restlessly chasing after sources and staying up all night to get a scoop out. It is to Lynskey’s credit that her character never comes across as a mere symbol of the drudgery of good journalism, as the actress brings to Brand a gentle personality that makes the character’s timid frustrations and longings feel genuine. But the casting of Lynskey is also interesting on a metatextual level: successfully working in both Hollywood fare and indies, the actress does not signal one kind of film more than the other. Her presence here helps keep the audience in the dark as to what type of film Shattered Glass will ultimately turn out to be, and what can be expected from it.

Chloë Sevigny, meanwhile, was in 2003 in the middle of what might have been the most intensely indie phase of her career, appearing in two edgy, controversial films: Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny. But she also was, by that point, an Oscar-nominated actress. Like Lynskey’s, her presence in Shattered Glass (as fictional reporter Caitlin Avey) signals a kind of uncertainty, between propulsive Hollywood plotting and more contemplative, offbeat drama. 

The ambitious Glass, his voiceover monologue, and the big words he uses to extoll the virtues of journalism all feel more Hollywood than anything else in this oddly sketched out, realistically ambiguous milieu. But his attitude, we are told, is what has gotten him so far up the journalism ladder at such a young age: maybe the fact that he doesn’t fit in is precisely the point. He is the kind of character who makes things happen, and we expect him at any point to do something that will dictate the way the film will move forward. 

Instead, the event that will set things in motion comes from somewhere completely new and out of left field: the offices of Forbes Digital, where a journalist (played by the lovely Steve Zahn) cannot find any proof that the people and companies mentioned in Glass’s latest article ever existed. Despite the reassuring presence of on-screen text of the kind familiar from movies based on true stories, this introduction 32 minutes into the film is still unexpected and somewhat jarring. Biopics and films based on real events sometimes struggle to introduce new characters in media res without this ruining the film’s rhythm; but in Shattered Glass, the out-of-left-field-ness of the Forbes Digital team proves to be part and parcel of the film’s very structure, and of Ray’s overall project: to unsettle the hero narrative that his film appears to be setting up in its opening moments. 

Indeed, it cannot be a coincidence that this abrupt introduction neatly echoes the disruptive act of fact-checking itself. Unlike a big scoop or a promotion — the kind of events we expect in a journalism success story — the revelation by the journalists at Forbes Digital does not advance the characters forward in any way. On the contrary: at its heart is an act of verifying something, of stopping to look twice, an interruption of forward momentum.1

However, Shattered Glass could still have espoused a more conventional thriller aesthetic at this point: after all, the stressful situation Glass finds himself in as he risks being exposed, and the psychology that caused his behaviour in the first place, are compelling enough sources of drama. Keeping the audience’s attention on him would make particular sense in the context of a well-known story that audiences might already be familiar with: though we may know the what, where and when, we do not know nor understand the why. Instead, and almost imperceptibly, writer/director Billy Ray makes the daring choice to slowly shift the film’s focus onto someone who not only knows less than we do, but is also a most undramatic (not to say boring) character, namely Chuck Lane.

Why? Like the team at Forbes Digital, Lane’s concern is to fact check. Unlike them, however, he has a vested interest in these events. The New Republic is his responsibility, and he knows Glass — all the more reasons why he might want to believe the young reporter for as long as possible. By focusing on him, Ray stretches out the momentum-ending process of fact-checking so much that what could have been, in a different film, a real eureka moment, here becomes an almost unbearably tense and slow dawning. 

Lane first asks Glass for his sources almost off-handedly, on his way to some other place. Later, his various attempts to get sources’ phone numbers, to leave them messages and to contact them, occur in empty, in-between moments, while he is busy doing other big editorial tasks. These are seemingly tedious and boring occasions, “dull bits” that wouldn’t make it into standard Hollywood fare (or a Hitchcock movie). But as Glass’ excuses get more and more convoluted, Lane asks more and more questions, tries more and more ways to contact the sources, spends more and more time on this article — and the film slows down. The “dull bits” become the main bits. 

This change of pace reaches breaking point when the film almost grinds to a halt, in the pivotal scene where Lane finally realises that the sources for Glass’s article are fake. On the phone with Forbes Digital, the editor listens as Glass fumbles for explanations off-screen while the camera lingers and slowly zooms in on Sarsgaard, an almost imperceptible look of outrage, anger and embarrassment gradually forming on his face. It’s an almost unbearably uncomfortable “moment” — one that lasts a whole 20 seconds. 

There is revealed, for the first time, a rift between two sets of facts: the epic, exhilarating one described by Glass on the one hand, and the actual, slower, less glamorous truth as uncovered by Lane on the other. Sarsgaard’s performance beautifully transcribes the stunned feeling of suddenly realising you’ve been fooled, but Ray also makes the alienating sensation felt by mirroring it in the film’s very structure. Scenes of Lane trying to verify his reporter’s sources and others showing Glass monologuing to beatific students always seemed to be of a rather different kind and aesthetic, but in juxtaposing them to one another, Ray suggested they were of a piece. As Glass’s work turns out to be based on fabricated facts, the nagging feeling that something is off about those high-school scenes grows into sheer dread. But because Lane is inclined to believe that Glass is the victim of lying sources, it takes some time for Ray to properly pry apart the two “realities” he has been showing us from the start. At the end of the film, we once again see Glass in the classroom, but no students are present: all these moments were pure fantasy. 

It is a nifty piece of filmmaking, finding suspense and dramatic tension in the act of verifying facts and sorting the truths from the lies. But while Ray can make us feel Lane’s dread and frustration and the pain of the betrayal, the writer/director never tries to convince us of the righteousness of the editor’s principles. Though the film tears apart the Hollywood success story that Glass thought he was living, it does not try to persuade us of the importance of its alternative, namely the truth. In the film’s most daring departure from commercial, spoon-fed storytelling, it in fact takes it for granted that we would already understand the importance of the truth. Near the end of the film, Lane walks into his office expecting to find his reporters staunchly supporting their young friend and colleague Glass. Instead, they all stand by Lane, or rather, since he isn’t particularly well-liked, but by the very principles of journalism. When he tells the assembled crowd of reporters, “It’s funny, ‘cause I thought I would have to explain all this to you,” the film itself also suggests that defending the truth should be — must be — a no-brainer for its audience, too. 

The line makes clear that this basic, innate principle, has been the invisible structuring element of the entire film. It explains the decisions to shift focus from Glass to Lane and to emphasise the discomfort of the revelation, framing the lie not so much as something that personally affected an individual (Lane), but as an event that touched on something much bigger and much more important than a single character. Something which, it is implied, surely does not need to be proven or explained by a film, and which viewers hopefully do not leave at the door when they enter a cinema. 

Footnotes:

  1. The gradual, slow revelation that something bad has already happened is the core of some of the most haunting films, made all the more haunting when they initially seemed to embrace a completely forward-looking style: chief among them Antonioni’s Blow Up, but also Brian De Palma’s Blow Out and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. back

Elena Lazic

Elena is the founder and editor of Animus.