Coming while the memory of Jayson Blair's duplicitous escapades at The New York Times is still reasonably fresh, the release of Shattered Glass couldn't be much more fortuitous. For those with short memories, this film chronicles the scandal that erupted in 1998 over the revelations that a 25-year-old reporter named Stephen Glass had habitually and pathologically fabricated stories for The New Republic, a neo-liberal organ for the Beltway crowd.
Out of 41 articles published by Glass in that journal, at least 27 were partly or wholly fabricated. The scam was breathtaking in its audacity: Glass invented people, places and incidents out of whole cloth, even forging documents and Web sites to back up his stories. The episode exposed the extent to which resource-strapped periodicals are dependent on the integrity of their writers, who in turn feel tremendous pressure to turn in sexy, sensational stories.
As Stephen Glass, Hayden Christensen banishes memories of his unfortunate role as Anikin Skywalker by supplying the right mix of faux naivete, charisma, neediness and brown-nosing. Even though Glass's success prompts some quiet envy, in Christensen's incarnation, the reporter's popularity around the office is utterly convincing. Even more impressive is Peter Sarsgaard as Charles Lane, the magazine's editor who sniffed out Glass's lies. Sarsgaard has been quietly impressive for years (he was one of Teena Brandon's killers in Boys Don't Cry) and here, as a hastily promoted young editor who must win over a resentful staff while contending with Glass, he's understated and brilliant.
Shattered Glass also lays out a subtle portrait of a journalistic culture endangered by youth and celebrity, where ambitious young people are placed in the outer fringe of power, thus becoming fawning courtiers eager to make an impression in Washington. However, the film is ultimately just a little bit complacent in its uplifting presentation of responsible journalists beating back a marauder from their citadel. The truth is, scandal sells, and if the charlatan is shameless enough, infamy is a great way to launch a career. Stephen Glass writes novels now, and soon we'll be able to purchase the memoirs of Jayson Blair.
This Friday night at Cary's Madstone Theater, the News and Observer's veteran political reporter Rob Christensen will discuss the film after its 7:30 p.m. screening.