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The Best American Sports Writing 2003
By Buzz Bissinger (editor)


. "Shattered Glass"

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 of print.

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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