Stopping Stephen Glass
The new movie "Shattered Glass" believes that Stephen Glass's mad genius made it impossible to stop him before he was caught. There is evidence to suggest otherwise.
11:00 PM, Oct 30, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
"SHATTERED GLASS" is a slim, reedy film. It presents the now-familiar story of Stephen Glass as a cautionary tale and then offers up a hero in the person of Chuck Lane, the New Republic editor who fired Glass. As a journalism movie, "Shattered Glass" is middle-rank, not up to the standards of "The Insider" or "Live from Baghdad," but better than, say, "I Love Trouble." It is too parochial to find a broad audience and too slight to win any major awards.
And yet, it is an important movie to discuss because it attempts to pull an ugly trick: While "Shattered Glass" presents itself as an exposé of journalism's sins, it is actually a carefully prepared whitewash.
THE STEPHEN GLASS of "Shattered Glass" is an effete, unstable sycophant. Played with surprising dexterity by Hayden Christensen (one suspects that in hell actors are forced to work with George Lucas over and over), Glass walks, shoeless, around the office ladling out compliments, asking people if they are "mad" at him, and playing all sides. He pledges complete allegiance to New Republic editor Michael Kelly (played by Hank Azaria) and makes an enormous show of anger when Kelly is fired. He's then the first person through the door to suck up to Kelly's replacement, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard).
He also displays a clear understanding of professional rank. The character Glass is obsequious towards his superiors, self-effacing with his peers, and condescending and puffed up around his juniors. He embodies every loathsome quality of the Washington career climber and for this is rewarded with respect from his colleagues and prestigious assignments from bigger, richer magazines.
He is also depicted as a mad genius. Glass dazzles the staff at his magazine with improbable story ideas--among them a young Republican orgy, a cult devoted to Alan Greenspan, and finally, a computer hacker named Ian Restil, who extorts thousands of dollars from a software behemoth called Jukt Micronics.
The Jukt story attracts the attention of Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), a reporter for Forbes Digital Tool, who begins hunting for Jukt and Restil. Penenberg first believes that Glass has been snookered by a group of prankster hackers, but then comes to realize that the Jukt story is deliberate fiction. With a big assist from Forbes, Lane finally confronts Glass and decides to fire him, over the strenuous objections of Glass's colleague and close friend, Caitlin Avey (Chloë Sevigny). The film's closing moments show Glass having a full-blown breakdown and Lane being received as a conquering hero by Avey and the rest of the New Republic staff.
OF COURSE, there is no "Caitlin Avey." Those who have followed the Glass saga will see in Avey an amalgam of Glass's former friends Hanna Rosin and Jonathan Chait. But "Shattered Glass" fictionalizes nearly every character outside of Glass, Penenberg, Kelly, and Lane (with the notable exception of Marty Peretz, who is mostly an off-screen presence) and it is here that the movie makes its first wrong turn. There was a strange dynamic at work in the offices of the New Republic--Rosin admits that after she heard Glass had been fired she "marched into Chuck's office and all but called him an asshole . . ." She must not have been the only person on staff to have had an opinion. What were the outspoken and forthright Leon Wieseltier's feelings on the subject? How about serial plagiarist Ruth Shalit, who was still at the magazine? But instead of telling us exactly who said what, "Shattered Glass" offers only fictionalized supporting characters.
In the movie these fictionalized characters create a culture that clearly enables Glass. Yet director Billy Ray admirably refuses to let him off the hook by blaming his parents or using some other false alibi. In the movie, the responsibility for the entire affair falls on just one person: Stephen Glass.
And yet, if you step outside "Shattered Glass" and into the real world, the picture becomes more complicated because Glass was not a genius who fooled everyone. In fact, there were lots of people who Glass never fooled. There was evidence that he was making up his stories almost from the very start. And to find this evidence, one needn't have looked any further than the New Republic's Correspondence page.
TOWARDS THE BEGINNING OF THE MOVIE, Michael Kelly gets a letter accusing Glass of fabricating one of his stories. Kelly huddles with Glass and, after making a brief phone call to check, dismisses the letter writer's complaint.
What "Shattered Glass" doesn't tell you is that the New Republic was frequently receiving letters to the editor pointing out Glass's problems. Here's a sample: