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Shattered Glass - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Shattered Glass
The list of actors for whom I will go to movies I'm not interested in is short. At the moment, its only entry is Hayden Christensen.

I owe Mr. Christensen a thank you note.

In general, I avoid bio pics, or pretty much any "this is based on actual events" movies, particularly those based on events less than two hundred years old, and most particularly those based on subjects who are still alive. They can be quite well made, but I think it's impossible to really get perspective on the meaning of an event in such a short time, and people... who knows what living people may do next? Someone making a movie about Jimmy Carter in 1980 would have had an entirely different perspective on his subject than someone making a movie about him in 2003, and in 2003, we don't know what he will ultimately mean to history, or what impact he had. Most "real event" stories really don't stand a chance at permanence.

Shattered Glass is a story about a real event which happened less than ten years ago, and deals with a man, Stephen Glass, who is younger than I am. Right now, Glass is infamous for fabricating twenty-odd stories for several publications in the nineties, but in twenty years, who knows? He's a bright and ambitious guy--maybe his life will end up being about serving as mankind's first ambassador to an alien race. I mean, probably not, but you don't know. The fabrication of a handful of stories may end up being a footnote to his life.

I was not especially thrilled to learn that this was Hayden Christensen's current project, but I live in one of the towns where it's in its limited release, and I felt honor bound as a fan to come back and report on it. Fan report: Christensen's awesome.

Not a fan report: So is the movie.

These are things Shattered Glass isn't:

  • A bio pic. Despite the appearance of the advertisements, Shattered Glass is not the story of Stephen Glass. It offers very little in the way of speculation about what made him do what he did (only the realistic and consequently not terribly interesting idea that he was under some stress and enjoyed being the center of attention), and nothing at all about trying to place the meaning of Glass's life or his impact on the world of journalism. A story could certainly be built around those things, but it would tend to be very by-the-numbers, and not as honest as the movie actually is. We don't know why Stephen Glass felt the need to fabricate news stories and print them as facts, and to speculate on such reasons would be to fictionalize as much as Glass did. Instead, Glass is seen as a catalyst, causing an examination of standards in journalism, as well as a study of shame and guilt.

  • A political movie. The New Republic is a policy magazine, favored by policy wonks the world over. It tends toward the neo-conservative point of view (though the liberal edge of the neocon movement). It would be very easy to take a political angle on this story, treating the ignorance of Glass's deception as political angling by cynical pols who were willing to print anything to smear the opposition. It would have been easy to paint the discovery and exposure of the fraud as virtue-within-the politics, if the producers had a neocon bent themselves.

    But neither approach is taken, and to tell the truth, I wouldn't even hazard a guess as to what the filmmakers' politics are based on this movie. In fact, if you didn't know The New Republic going in, you wouldn't be able to spot its slant in Shattered Glass, since the articles in question tended to be personality pieces more than political ones.

    Shattered Glass is not a political movie at all.

  • Melodramatic or cynical. Aside from the reasons mentioned above, one of the reasons I steer clear of bio pics and "based on real events!" movies is simply that they tend to be done from one of two points of view: Look at the poor dear! or People are scum, aren't they?

    Shattered Glass avoids both points of view. The fate of the free world is not implied to rest on the shoulders of The New Republic (even if it is "the in flight magazine of Air Force One"). Print journalism is not rumored to be in its coffin, with Glass holding a hammer over the last nail. Glass is not portrayed as a victim of a harsh society that expects too much too soon. Conversely, there's no "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" at his ethics violations. There's no implied conspiracy of journalists to hoodwink the public. Instead of turning something over to show its seedy underside, this movie turns it over to show a wound, inflicted unexpectedly and needing care. Every character is presented as a person trying to get along in the everyday world; even Glass himself is shown more as pitiable than loathsome. You never want him to win, but rather than wanting him to lose as badly as he does, you do want to shake him and say, "Stop it! Come clean and take your lumps! Grow up!"

And ultimately, this last is what Shattered Glass is about: being an adult, taking responsibility. Glass is presented not as evil, but as childlike. He lets his parents tell him what classes he should be taking, and is more worried about making friends in the office than doing his job. He seems to not quite believe in the reality of what he's doing--this is bolstered by the directorial choice to show the false "interviews" in clips that look like flashbacks--and to see a judgment on his behavior as a personal matter rather than a professional one. When his editors question him, it is always, for him, a question of whether or not they are "mad" at him. He plays office politics the way a seasoned teenage girl plays high school politics--making people feel good, making them feel like heels if they think badly of him, making them feel protective of him and sensitive to his moods. He is every inch the adolescent.

This is contrasted beautifully with the character of Chuck Lane, the editor who takes over when the popular Michael Kelly is fired. Lane is unpopular with the staff and a bit insecure, but he sets to his job in a resolute way, going forward even when there is emotional resistance. He is shown in his home as a husband and father, and in the office as, shockingly enough, a professional. He doesn't deliberately humiliate Glass in front of his peers (inviting him to a private conference to discuss the doctored articles), but he also doesn't give in to the "Are you mad at me?" ploy. He doggedly pursues the truth, even though he knows that having it won't give him any satisfaction, only more work and more difficulty with his staff, all of whom are very fond of Glass. But Lane has a job to do, and he does it. He's responsible, and ultimately, he brings the staff around to responsibility as well.

Glass, in the movie, doesn't seem to have learned from his experience, judging by the frame in which he is still fantasizing that he is a well-loved and well-respected reporter for The New Republic. He went on to write a novel called The Fabulist about his experiences, and I'm interested in reading it to find out if he did learn anything. (Though, random off-topic comment, I think Glass would be better served writing epistolary style novels about some of the great characters he made up, with the story interspersed with "interviews"--he's a good character writer and it would be a shame to waste that, but self-fictionalizing is always a bad idea, and I am willing to say that sight unseen on the book. I think he might do well to write such novels under a pseudonym, though. He doesn't have a lot of friends left in the press, and he'll get skewered no matter what he writes as Stephen Glass.)

Is it true to life?

I checked the review in The New Republic, and they seem to think it's pretty darned close, but ultimately, I don't think it matters. It's nice to know that the situation did seem to bring out the best in a lot of journalists (and TNR did handle the matter in a very classy way), but the story as a story could work as well as fiction as it does in fact (though of course, it would bring a much higher level of irony if it did).

At any rate, I actually stopped at CVS after the movie to buy a notepad, because I had to keep track of the questions running through my head, the things I wanted to think about, and my commute home was too long to wait. I will probably address more SG-related issues here, but for the review, I'll leave it here.

I feel a bit...: calm calm
Soundtrack: Grease soundtrack

3 comments or Leave a comment
myf From: myf Date: November 30th, 2003 07:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hey Fern,

Another random visitor to your LJ. I've been reading everything you've got posted at SQ, and was thrilled to see you've got an LJ. Hurrah! I've friended you, but no obligation to reciprocate.

That's very interesting, your review of SG. I read a very interesting interview with him just a week or so ago, not knowing who he was or the existence of the film. From the gist of the interview, it sounds like he has not moved on a great deal with his life, nor did he come across very remorseful. But, like you say, it's not really the point. I must go and see it when it's released.

Have a happy Monday!
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: December 1st, 2003 03:29 am (UTC) (Link)
Hmmm...what's the chances of this EVER coming out in Ireland. low, I think.

ladyaeryn From: ladyaeryn Date: December 13th, 2003 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
And another succumbs to the addiction of LiveJournal! ;) Good to see you around. :)

Excellent review - just makes me wish all the more that I could see this film! (The nearest place showing it's two hours away and I've no one to go with. Poo.)
3 comments or Leave a comment