If you can’t believe what you read is true, just maybe it isn’t. Mainstream newspapers, magazines and websites have editorial checking processes designed to ensure only The Truth – which is indeed sometimes stranger than fiction – gets published. As anyone who has worked with such an editorial process knows, there are fact checkers, sub-editors, editors, proprietors and lawyers all perusing stories before they are cleared.
But in 1998 at the respected policy and current events title New Republic Magazine (“the inflight magazine of Air Force One”), such processes were found wanting when the talented but flawed character of Stephen Glass began writing. This inspired film by debut director Billy Ray is based on Glass’s real-life decline and fall from grace in the noblest profession, and throws a case study of office culture into the mix, but leaves unanswered some fundamental questions.
Based on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger, the film introduces us to successful young journalist Glass, played by Hayden “Darth Vader” Christensen. He has returned to his school a hero to tell of how he got where he is professionally to a class of attentive students. His stories at planning meetings always outshine those of his colleagues, but he is gradually found out by his suspicious editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) to be a spectacular, even pathological liar.
Pulling the hoodwinks over two editors, Glass published scores of stories which were simply made up, without recourse to facts or supporting testimony. But when a hack at another title questions Glass’s sources, a Pandora’s Box is opened as the young journalist is unable to satisfactorily account for his claims. Instead, he spins an ever-more elaborate web of lies, setting in motion a chain of events that end with his sacking, and Lane begins to wonder if Glass has ever told the truth about anything.
Hayden Christensen, from playing sultry young pulse-racer Anakin Skywalker in the prequel Star Wars films, here is quite the bespectacled, geeky anti-hero. He convinces his audience as well as his colleagues that he is reliable, trustworthy and respectable, making his descent down the slippery slope of untruths all the more watchable. Sarsgaard too is solid, beginning as an usurper of a popular editor (Hank Azaria) and ending as the hero of the piece.
Shattered Glass is an excellent case study for journalism teachers – the official website comes complete with training tips. It’s also a fascinating story in its own right for anyone interested in the world behind the headlines, or for anyone who works in an office (and is convinced that the geek at the next desk is a psycho). And while we do get to see that some journalists are good guys (and some could even be called human), what we don’t see is exactly why Glass made up the tall tales in the first place – which leaves an essential question-mark over the rest of an otherwise compelling film.