A story about a journalist working on a major magazine is one of instant
appeal to me, as it is likely to be to all writers. This one, based on the
scandal of printing fiction as fact in the pages of The New Republic
magazine, comes directly off the wires as headline news. The real Stephen
Glass was caught making up material thought to be the product of skillful
ability to sniff out the unusual but timely news story and render it with
lively flair. While basking in that assumption, he was a star in the kingdom
As the movie points out at its inception, Glass's byline was all over the
place. In addition to his staff position with the current events and policy
magazine, he contributed feature articles to Rolling Stone, Harper's, George
and others. In every respect he seemed to be a class act. Somewhere along
the line, he went wrong and started to make up his "news" stories, in whole
or in part.
What's missing in the movie about this renegade behavior is the motivation
that drove it. The real Stephen Glass had been an editor who influenced a
great many beginning writers who then went on to become well known
journalists in their own right. Those people are on record with praise for
his early tutorship. One of the messages he most pounded into them was the
verifiability of everything they put into an article. How he goes from
revered instructor to his edict's antithesis is simply not discussed in this
movie. Instead, we're left to assume what might have been the basis for such
a psychological transformation.
Okay, so we imagine a writer working on a news story. When all his notes are
compiled into an article, he realizes it's bland. It's not firing on all
cylinders. It lacks the juice it takes to elicit a "wow" from an editor and
from colleagues. He has to stand out. He's a guy with this great rep and
all he can do is a piece anyone could have written. So, why not inject an
element that adds wit and character? All it takes is a made up quote from
an alleged, colorful, non-existent source. Yeah, such a guy might have said
such a thing in such a context. Who'll know? I'll just put it into my notes
as though I really had such an interview.
And, guess what? It works. Nobody raises an eyebrow, they just praise the
piece and look at him with that glow of respect and admiration for another
coup. He likes that. It feeds him, like a drug. He's addicted. More
fiction to follow.
After establishing Glass' credentials and endearing manipulations within his
magazine office world, his editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), is
shown to go to bat for his writers against Marty Peretz (Ted Kotcheff), the
magazine's owner. By acts like this he has earned the staff's undying love
and loyalty and they're in a state of shock when he is fired and replaced by
Charles "Chuck" Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), a fellow writer who is not considered
much of a scribe, let alone an editor.
You might think that the new editor in such a situation of low support,
facing a staff that feels betrayed, might overlook questioning of their
fair-haired boy's latest article about a convention of hackers and its
victorious hero. But when competing magazine, Forbes, takes a close look at
the article because of their envy at not finding this story first, and when
they can't verify a thing in it, they call the New Republic for help
with a few phone numbers. Editor Lane is obligated to give Glass every
benefit of the doubts being raised but is also obliged to pursue the
verification of every detail in the article.
This process builds dramatic tension from a well crafted script and delivery
by a cool set of actors. First time director Billy Ray well understood the
impact potential of personal downfall and makes the most of it by making
certain we become attached to the central figure in order to feel the tension
of his high wire act as he fights exposure. We hang with this charmer even
as we know that flight from responsibility is not in his house of cards.
Based on Buzz Bissinger's 1998 article for Vanity Fair magazine, the story
structure includes the simultaneous intercutting of Glass speaking before his
admiring high school teacher and a class of gaga pre-journalists on the
secrets of his success. Peppering his delivery with admirable
self-deprecation, the seemingly contradictory scene is effective counterpoint,
with ironic overtones.
Again, I'm left with the feeling that though as an expose it's quite
engrossing and well paced, the basis of it is missing: the little matter of
what it was in Glass' psychological makeup that made his actions possible.
What were his circumstances at the time he took that first step of deception?
There are 5 "W's" in journalism. The Why is inadequately fulfilled. Perhaps
because it could only be supplied by Glass himself and he wasn't exactly a
cooperating collaborator or, in fact, a trustworthy one.
Hayden Christensen plays Stephen Glass with attractive intelligence and
presence, though one may ask why someone thought he needed lipstick. This
makeup trick is an inept, distracting miscalculation. That aside, he
demonstrates skill in the creation of a manipulative opportunist and a
sleight-of-hand fakir, worlds apart from his prior incarnation as Anakin
Skywalker, where he did less well.
Equal in the area of character appeal is Sarsgaard whose intent silences are
enough to demolish the subject of his attention. He develops power out of
steady, almost steely reserve.
Hank Azaria, Steven Zahn, the always fascinating Chloe Sevigny and the
mostly wasted world-class beauty of Rosario Dawson are all notable in a fine
supporting cast fulfilling their roles in the absorbing character drama with
the feel of a thriller.
~~ Jules Brenner