A true story: Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) was 25 when he was caught ‘cooking’ a story for prestigious US political publication The New Republic. He faked sources, referred to legislative bills that never existed and generally lied in numerous published articles that were read by Washington and state policy makers. His fictions were always exciting reads, whether they about teenage hackers being paid off or young conservatives acting like louts at party conferences, as is the central hook of this story. The cinematic adaptation lacks any of that excitement.
A talking heads piece with no memorable lines of dialogue, no powerful exchanges, no characters to root for, and no character arcs, Billy Ray’s Shattered Glass is a dull rendering of a true story about lying. Its flaws are multitude. The most obvious mistake is the casting of Christensen, a wet screen presence with the emotional range of a five year old. One might assume that this is a purposeful performance, appropriate considering Glass is presented here as emotionally clinging and an ethical enigma, but, in all honesty, there is a problem when any film’s lead unintentionally veers towards Raymond Babbit from Rain Man (1987) – as opposed to, say, Bernstein from the referenced All the President’s Men (1976). Christensen is no Hoffman. His dribbling outbursts of "I’m sorry", "I was here" and "Are you mad at me?" have neither the psychological depth one would assume Ray is aiming for, nor the consistent delivery to make this seem like anything more than an amateur screenplay.
Did the offices of The New Republic, with its young hungry staff, really serve as a haven for this drip of a journalist? Was the working day really taken up with coffee meetings and group crying sessions as presented here? Was there no concern that Glass was putting everyone’s career at jeopardy by being accused of ‘cooking’ his sources and doing very little to cover himself? Perhaps the truth is that The New Republic was essentially a student newspaper full of people playing at being reporters – in which case, one would have to wonder how this journal came to be reading material for presidents and senators.
The real insult to injury is the second act’s glimmer of dramatic hope. We intercut for a few scenes to the offices of a rival e-journal, Forbes Digital, where one of Glass’ bogus stories is being ripped to shreds. This sequence is lent star power by cameos from Rosario Dawson and the ever-watchable Steve Zahn. We even shift into a warmer visual tone compared to the anonymous strip lighting of Glass’ environment. These scenes zing with pace and ambition; but by the end of the film, you’ll have the overriding feeling that someone has ‘cooked’ the real story, not to make it an engaging, tabloid film, but to avoid offending anyone involved in the actual scandal.
For a film that should be a debate on veracity, a treatise on the importance of evidence-based reporting and an attack on journalistic power, Shattered Glass is more like soggy cotton wool. What should be a brittle, sharp, cutting drama is, at best, insecure and unabrasive. If the reality was this unexhilarating, perhaps Stephen Glass’ betrayal should have been left as a magazine article.