Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Review: "Shattered Glass" (2003)

I have nothing against the field of psychology. However, there is a trend with bio-pics to over-explain how characters become the way they are. Flashbacks to traumatic childhoods, ranging from abuse to spoiling to neglect, have become a standard explanatory device. Rare is the modern film, including the subject of this review, where the viewer ends up feeling that not enough of the person's background is revealed. The subject, by the time the credits roll, remains a cypher and we are left wondering what really makes them tick.

"Shattered Glass" is the true life story of Stephen Glass, a young journalist who quickly rises to fame through his work at "The New Republic". We soon discover that his popularity with readers is rivaled by his popularity with his coworkers. This includes editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), who is soon forced to leave after a dispute with the magazine's boss. Kelly is replaced by Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), a writer who is not as easily charmed by Glass, but is also not nearly as well liked by the rest of the staff. When he discovers the possibility that Glass has fabricated details in his latest story, he has both Glass and everyone else to deal with.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. The DVD of this film includes the "60 Minutes" story of the whole 1998 incident. If the piece is any indication, then the filmmakers do not indulge in the same flights of fancy that Glass himself did when telling their story. And there is little need to. The fact that Glass was able to go as far as he did and not get caught is truly one of the great mysteries of our time. This is particularly striking when we realize that this was only seven years ago and that the vast researching advantage of the Internet was at anyone's fingertips.

Homer Simpson once literally dug himself into a hole, with several other characters, that he couldn't get out of. When one character asks Homer what they should do, Homer replies triumphantly, "We'll dig our way out!" and then they continue to dig. Now, this "Simpsons" reference is not completely gratuitous. As with Homer, Glass continues to believe throughout his downward spiral that he can lie his way out. But where as Homer's delusion was humorous, Glass's is downright disturbing. It's uncomfortable for the audience to see him sweat and reach for explanations that are beyond probable.

Like the film and Glass himself, Christensen plays his cards close to his chest. His affability with the people he works with is convincing, and he manages to get the viewer enough on his side so that we are emotionally jarred as his world starts collapsing. Peter Sarsgaard has a less showy role, but his submerged (but growing) frustration at this kid who simply does not know when to quit is palpable. The audience's goodwill gradually moves from the earnest kid Glass to the steadfast adult Lane. You can sense when the last of Stephen's life lines are cut when Chuck tells him sternly, "I'm not going anywhere with you". Glass finally knows he's sunk, and the audience feels some relief that his long ride is finally over.

The resolution strikes an odd note. The filmmakers feel some compunction to give Chuck Lane, after all that he's been through, a sort of standing ovation. The moment rings a bit false, and would have been better handled if just Caitlin Avey (Chloe Sevigny), who defended Glass the hardest, would have made her peace with Lane. As for Glass, he receives a far more creepy ending as we see how out of touch with reality he could really be at times. The final epilogue that details his efforts to pass the New York bar exam also makes us wish for dear life we never find ourselves in a courtroom with him.

I've often griped about two-dimensional villains who are given no motivations beyond that of just being bad. Stephen Glass is also given short shrift in the motivation department, but this can be forgiven in this case. Unlike most movie bad guys, Stephen Glass is flesh and blood. If in the course of the film you find his actions and character implausible, then all you have to do is watch the "60 Minutes" piece and see for yourself.

Eight out of Ten

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