- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

“Journalism is about pursuing the truth.” This platitude is entrusted to Hayden Christensen during the introductory sequence of “Shattered Glass.” The actor is playing the disgraced young journalist Stephen Glass imagining a triumphant homecoming to his high school alma mater in Highland Park, Ill. An apparent success at the age of 24, he says all the right things to a journalism class; the remainder of the movie depicts how he trashed a promising professional start by neglecting to practice what he preaches.

Directed with methodical lucidity by writer-director Billy Ray, “Shattered Glass” is an exemplary and edifying first feature. The Glass scandal has a local angle, of course. The Washington-based writer was sacked by the New Republic in May 1998. A sorely disenchanted editor, Charles Lane, portrayed with slow-burning brilliance by Peter Sarsgaard, was compelled to conclude that Mr. Glass, exposed as a serial fabricator and truth-evader, was a compulsive liar. The fact that Mr. Lane decided to take truth-telling seriously proved curtains for Mr. Glass as a staff writer and associate editor of the magazine.

The bubble of ingenuous opportunism that kept Mr. Glass afloat is initially punctured when another publication, the now-defunct online magazine Forbes Digital Tool, gets wind of a mischievous New Republic story called “Hack Heaven.” It seems to be poaching on Forbes turf without bothering to authenticate numerous facts, namely the identities of the cast of characters Mr. Glass claimed to meet and observe during a “hackers’ convention” in Bethesda.

It’s impossible not to share the sarcastic glee of Steve Zahn, in wonderful form as Adam Penenberg, the Forbes reporter who uncovers the bogus nature of “Hack Heaven.” At first, rooting interest seems to be tilting toward Mr. Zahn’s character, who also gets to harass a rattled but stubbornly devious Glass during a teleconference between the publications.

A turning point occurs when Mr. Zahn mutters, just among the Forbes group, “This guy is toast.” From that moment on, the movie becomes a fascinating countdown to breakdown between Mr. Sarsgaard and Mr. Christensen. The former excels at the embodiment of sincerely offended honesty and responsibility. The latter sustains an impressive facade of deceit, persisting in both half-truths and blatant lies long beyond a point of credible self-interest.

Ultimately, the movie orchestrates a vivid and entertaining confrontation between fundamental honesty and precocious dishonesty. It’s an amusing touch that Mr. Glass exhausts the available excuses and extenuating arguments for his behavior. He cultivates indulgent mentors at the New Republic, where his boyishly apologetic behavior becomes a fond office joke. He’s a master of such taglines as “Did I do something wrong?” “Are you mad at me?” and “Don’t hate me.”

Outsiders might be inclined to sneer at the magazine’s management for failing to detect a snake in the grass. Mr. Glass seems a curiously obsequious specimen of a showoff. But soft spots and blind spots do abound. Mr. Glass abuses both the generosity and ignorance of his colleagues. Still fond to a fault, the pushovers are reluctant to believe the worst of him, then reluctant to punish.

The Hayden Christensen buildup will make sense after “Shattered Glass,” which showcases genuine dexterity and subtlety. He may even make it harder for aspiring sneaks to mimic the disarming Stephen Glass methodology, which begins with an excess of buttering up and concludes with frenetic self-pity. When last seen, his character remains unable to focus on the self-incriminating issues at hand. While journalism is about pursuing the truth, for Stephen Glass, the world of fact still seems a distant imperative.

****

TITLE: “Shattered Glass”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Billy Ray. Based on a magazine article by H.G. Bissinger. Cinematography by Mandy Walker. Production design by Francois Seguin. Costume design by Renee April. Music by Mychael Danna

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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