Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Sixteen

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#16 — Shattered Glass (Billy Ray, 2003)
There’s a pleasing irony at the heart of Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass. In making a film based on real events, Ray has a certain amount of leeway to embellish and rearrange, shifting the details of the story to enhance the drama. Indeed, there’s even an expectation that he’ll do so, jettisoning those elements that don’t work, and potentially inventing others that will clarify his points and smooth the messiness of lives and situations that have no obligation to adhere to the cleanliness of a three-act structure. And yet the film clearly strives to convey its scenarios with a laudatory commitment to accuracy in depicting the downfall of journalist Stephen Glass. The fiction filmmaker is an assiduously honest reporter. The reporter is a weaver of pure fiction.

Stephen Glass was a writer and associate editor for The New Republic, a magazine held in such high regard and wielding such influence that it was regularly referred to as “the in flight magazine of Air Force One.” His career started to unravel when reporters from the fledgling online offshoot of Forbes looked into a article entitled “Hack Heaven,” which related the tale of executives from a company called Jukt Micronics negotiating with a juvenile expert in digital malfeasance. They discovered that the story was a complete fabrication. It was an exercise in creative writing in the guise of a news piece.

Ray’s film is daring in its simplicity. This is a film about intelligent people figuring things out as one crafty individual tries to keep the damaging truth obscured. There are no car crashes or chase scenes, no displays of last minute bravado that lead to an improbably rescue. The most dangerous moment involves accidentally running a stop sign. In the absence of quick, easy ways to goose the audience to attention, Ray manages to make it gripping when two people try to puzzle out a strange detail in the story by simultaneously calling the same phone number. A mounting pile of recently read magazines makes for a more memorable image than any number of computer enhanced spectacles that flooded multiplexes in recent years. Billy Ray makes magic with the intellectual certainty of his approach, one that values thoughtfulness over aggression, patience over frenetic energy, and intelligence over empty dazzle. Other filmmakers would have taken this material and goosed it up with frivolous material that could be cut into an appealing trailer. Ray has confidence that the story as it stands is worth telling. After all, that’s why he wanted to tell it.

He couldn’t have a better collaborator for a film rendered in this style than Peter Sarsgaard. Cast as Charles Lane, the editor of the publication when the story of Glass’s breach of journalistic ethics breaks, Sarsgaard is a master of understatement. He doesn’t play Lane as some sort of noble crusader, honing in instead on the idea that he’s a man of plainspoken integrity simply doing his job. He reacts to the growing controversy that threatens to swamp the reputation of the magazine, a reputation that stands as its greatest asset, with a mix of deliberate consideration and contained frustration, all informed by a mounting sense that he should have realized the problem far earlier had he not be hampered by his own caution over challenging the professionalism of a popular member of the staff. Like everyone else at the magazine, he was fooled by Glass’s in-house showmanship, the way he pitched his stories with a gawky disbelief at stumbling onto something so sensational. Sarsgaard subtly, artfully gets at Lane’s sense of responsibility and betrayal–betrayed by Glass, but also betrayed by his own failure to trust his instincts–and plays it all with such calm that the moments in which he explodes with anger are purely riveting.

The rest of the cast tackles their corners of the film with similar dedication. Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson have only a few scenes as the reporters who expose Glass, but they still manage to suggest the entirety of their professional dynamic. As fellow members of the New Republic staff, Melanie Lynskey and Chloe Sevigny take different approaches to showing the sorts of protective emotions that Glass inspired in his fellow workers (and Sevigny deserves special celebration for the scenes in which she flashes a hair-trigger fury that is strangely entertaining). Then there’s Hayden Christensen as Glass, worming into the insinuating neediness of the man, the constant quest for validation that causes him to practical beg his friends to verify that they enjoy his company. It’s a clear line from this anxious behavior to cooking up fanciful stories to please his friends, his editors, his distant readers. Christensen taps into this unappealing–yet paradoxically endearing–qualities with a refreshing lack of vanity.

It’s a fascinating story well told, but it also represents something greater, more troubling. Shattered Glass gets at the vicious erosion of standards in the field of journalism, a process that continues unabated to this day. Serious, measured reporting on important topics is quickly sacrificed to shiny carnival acts more likely to inspire laughter than thought. And it’s all greeted, even by those who should know better, those who should be protecting the sanctity of their once noble profession, with delighted applause. It was never a slippery slope, it was a treacherous cliff. And Billy Ray’s film shows just how easy it is to charge right off of it.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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