They say nothing succeeds like success, which partly explains the meteoric rise of journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. Their flashy but callow, mendacious mediocrity led each to a new lease on fame, proving that even failure succeeds like success as long as it sells papers and justfies six-figure book deals. Who says fame is a fickle mistress? Writer-director Billy Ray picks up the double-edged sword of Glass's fame for Shattered Glass (based on H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's Vanity Fair article of the same name), though the resulting non-fiction account cuts mostly one way.
As a hotshot magazine writer in his mid-twenties, Glass freelanced for George, Rolling Stone, and others while holding down a position at the historic New Republic magazine. As insinuatingly played by Hayden Christensen, Glass is deceptively humble and quietly reckless, cutting a charismatic swath through the New Republic offices with apologetic passive-aggressiveness (his refrain: "Did I do something wrong? Are you mad at me?"). His editors--Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) and, later, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard)--happily indulge Glass's hip, zippy, young-skewing tales from the Generation-X front, until an internet-news upstart (the now-defunct Forbes Digital) uncovers Glass's whole-cloth yarn about superstar computer hackers. Steve Zahn, ever-endearing, plays the scrappy bloodhound nipping at Glass's heels.
Kelly and Lane come off mostly as innocent dupes in the film, perhaps because of their open-door participation in what Ray calls "the cinematic equivalent of good reporting" about the New Republic crisis. Lane, in fact, emerges as the film's hero, for belatedly doing his job of vetting the magazine's reportage and eliminating its (self-)destructive star reporter. Sarsgaard expertly portrays Lane's initial unwillingness to accept the ugly truth and his righteous indignation once it is indisputably apparent; Ray rewards the cinematic Lane with an ovation by his sheepish staff, but intercuts it with Glass's golden-boy delusion of the accolades of his up-and-coming acolytes. Ray knows well enough to depict that the tall-tale raconteur was giving them what they wanted.
Shattered Glass does do much good reporting, telling Glass's story in an essentially straight-forward manner laced with dry humor. Ray structures the story as a nifty suspense thriller, and in doing so, risks tipping overboard (at times, Glass's relentless compulsiveness--seen, always, from the outside--plays like outtakes from a stalker flick). That the screenplay and Christensen's performance collectively fail to penetrate Glass's relective surface frustrates, but provocatively. We're expected, all too reasonably, to intuit Glass's real motives, as they are our own: to succeed, to be needed, to be respected, to be liked, on easy terms. Still, this restraint drains the drama a bit, as does leaving just how Glass got so much past the magazine's fact-checkers a nagging mystery.
When Glass must start dancing as fast as he can, we squirm at the memory of our own best-laid plans slipping out of control. Perhaps Glass's tragedy was a combination of speedy success and arrested development: he made a student's mistakes in a grown-man's world. Christensen's ultimate, wordless long take, his guilty reaction to the crushing litany of his journalistic crimes captures the implications of this loss of media innocence, but the postscript reminder that Glass parlayed his story into a glib roman a clef called The Fabulist suggests a certain perverse denial, that Glass's survivor's guilt was only skin deep. The film-ending "writing on the wall" is potent in its plain, black-and-white truth, telling less about the manipulator than the easily manipulated.