It can be easy to think that the age of “alternative facts” is something new. Somehow, humans have never been susceptible to inaccuracy on such a wide scale until now. While the failed reality TV show host running America may have made this trait more overt than ever before, falsehoods have always had a prominent place in American society. Supermarket tabloids claiming that “Elvis is alive!” have always existed. Politicians who spread smears about marginalized populations have always been around. And journalists, like Shattered Glass lead Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), have always been capable of spreading lies for their own benefit.
As we begin Shattered Glass, though, Stephen Glass is not portrayed as someone who lies. Instead, we are introduced to him talking to a room full of kids at his old school. In this framing device, he’s taking these youngsters, who all want to get into the writing industry, through his job working for The New Republic. This is a publication read by world leaders around the world, including the President of the United States. What Glass and his coworkers have written influence people with real authority. That’s why Glass takes his job so seriously. Through his explanations to the students (and, by proxy, to the viewer) about how an average New Republic article is put together, we can see just how much work goes into a single New Republic article.
Glass proves to be a great person to clarify how a New Republic magazine gets made. Glass has a quietly charismatic air about him that he uses to woo over his co-workers. He can win anyone in this office over by complimenting their writing, their jewelry, any specific quality about them. That same affable quality is ingeniously used to make the exposition about the New Republic digestible to the viewer. Glass isn’t counting a stiff Wikipedia summary of this publication. He’s trying to take his listeners on a journey that emphasizes the sheer majesty of working for something like New Republic. You’re hanging onto his every word as he speaks. Meanwhile, the editing from Jeffrey Ford deftly cuts between Glass in the classroom and the various departments working together to bring this magazine to life. The rapid but precise sense of timing in these cuts conveys the idea that everybody is connected at New Republic.
The screenplay by Billy Ray (who also directs) is so effective at getting the viewer to be cast under Glass’ spell. That make the gradual reveal that something is askew with his writing (namely that Glass is making up his stories) hits like a ton of bricks. In this regard, Shattered Glass reminded me of this years similarly top-notch movie Bad Education. Both derive a lot of engrossing entertainment out of peeling back the layers of lies surrounding an influential human being. Also in both cases, the levels of fraud reveal themselves in a gradual manner.
In the case of Shattered Glass, such reveals beautifully play off earlier scenes of the movie that immerse us in the perspective of Stephen Glass. Ray’s writing and directing is so good at establishing a sense of trustworthiness between the viewer and Glass. This character lures us into their world and creates a seemingly unshakeable status quo we can hold onto. As it becomes more and more clear what Glass has actually been up to, well, it becomes downright engrossing to watch the world shift beneath the viewers’ feet. Both the lying and the moviegoer are fascinatingly dragged back into reality, primarily at the hands of New Republic editor Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard).
Lane is an excellent example of the kind of thoughtful writing Billy Ray incorporates throughout Shattered Glass. His character is widely derided by his co-workers as just a one-note killjoy. But the film itself always gives Lane a greater deal of complexity. This is evident early on when Lane, upon being offered a very lucrative new job, doesn’t just revel in the idea of more power. He expresses genuine trepidation over taking on this new job and how it’ll affect his co-workers. Throughout the rest of the movie, Lane maintains this level of nuance in the face of a protagonist with a warped worldview casting himself as a put-upon martyr.
Glass starts out Shattered Glass as an irresistible individual you could listen to for hours on end. Why wouldn’t schoolkids hang on his every word? Glass ends Shattered Glass sitting alone in an empty schoolroom. Like much of his writing, Glass’ experience of talking to the next generation of newspaper writers was all in his head. The journey from the hopeful start of Shattered Glass to its somber end is one rife made even more compelling by the lead performances of Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard. Both take their respective characters into such unexpected yet riveting directions throughout the course of Shattered Glass. In their performances, both actors demonstrate how the fight against falsified information posing as the truth is nothing new. What’s old is new again. It’s scary how timeless this story is. On the other hand, it’s far more pleasing how timeless well-made movies like Shattered Glass are.