Shattered Glass is for reporters and the editors who love them. But it's also for anyone who's ever, say, cheated at cards. Reporters and editors will get a crash course in journalistic ethics. And card-cheaters will get a good look at one of their own -- a guy who broke the rules because playing by the rules was less likely to lead to success. Over a two-year period in the mid-'90s, Stephen Glass wrote nearly three dozen magazine articles that, to those in the notebook-and-pencil trade, seemed almost too good to be true. Turns out they weren't true. Glass added details, made up quotes and, drunk with success, finally started fabricating articles from whole cloth. There was no Church of George Herbert Walker Bush, no trade show devoted to Monica Lewinsky souvenirs, no teenage computer hacker who was given a lucrative job by the Silicon Valley software firm whose security he'd breached. There was only Glass, a 24-year-old ass-kisser who was in way over his head.
"Are you mad at me?" Hayden Christensen's Glass asks whenever there's a rip in the fabric of his social or professional life. It's the kind of question a 4-year-old would ask his mother, and Christensen, who's been interpreting the young Darth Vader for George Lucas' Star Wars saga, gives the line just the right amount of wounded narcissism. The movie doesn't take us inside Glass, except to show us some of his fabricated interviews sprung to Walter Mitty life. And it doesn't try to explain what he did, except to hint at parental pressure to succeed. Instead, it takes a step back and shows us the rise and fall of an ingratiating liar, which is strangely compelling, given that we've all told our share of ingratiating lies, especially at the office. As Glass' lies are exposed, first by an Internet publication, then by the editor of the New Republic, where most of them appeared, we experience a squirm-inducing mixture of schadenfreude and compassion.
Peter Sarsgaard gives a nobly restrained performance as Charles Lane, the New Republic's newly appointed editor, who follows the paper and digital trails left behind by Glass -- fake notes, fake faxes, fake phone calls, fake e-mails, even a fake Web site. And given Lane's dogged pursuit of the truth, Shattered Glass can't help but remind us of All the President's Men, where a pair of reporters brought down a president, the difference being that, this time, the journalists bring down a journalist. Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's literary editor, has said that Lane's handling of the Glass affair "brought nothing but glory to the New Republic." But what about before that? In Shattered Glass, the magazine comes out smelling like both a rose and a skunk. Overworked and underpaid (and amazingly young), its staff is under enormous pressure to deliver the goods. Is it any wonder, then, that eventually someone cooked a piece? To its credit, the movie both treats us to one bad apple and points to flaws in the barrel.