3 stars (out of 4)
Disgraced New Republic reporter Stephen Glass is the latest in a recent line of marginal figures (Larry Flynt, Ed Wood, Bob Crane) to have movies made about them. Except "Shattered Glass" isn't really about Glass.
He's at the movie's center, no doubt, but writer-director Billy Ray has shaped the material, based on Buzz Bissinger's Vanity Fair article, as a taut "All the President's Men"-style investigation into his misdeeds: Glass fictionalized huge chunks of stories, then devised elaborate ruses to cover his tracks. As with "All the President's Men," you watch knowing what the outcome will be, yet you hang in suspense over how the truth-seekers ultimately will cut through the lies.
Of course, "All the President's Men" was about bringing down a president, not a suck-up twentysomething journalist, yet "Shattered Glass" doesn't seem trivial. We have a lot invested in people telling the truth, whether it's the president or everyday journalists. Life is already too complicated without our having to wonder whether everything we read and hear is baloney.
Ray's film gets at a larger cultural point as well. Glass, played by Hayden Christensen, thrives at the New Republic and other publications because his story pitches are far more entertaining than his colleagues'. Fellow New Republic writer Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) knows he can't compete at story meetings, because his articles are just about information, and who needs that?
These two forces - bland old-school integrity and fast-and-loose flash - are set in necessary opposition to one another as Lane is promoted to editor and must deal with accusations from Forbes reporter Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn in a winning, non-jokey performance) that Glass has cooked the facts in an article about a teenage computer hacker.
By this point Glass is the one with the office-wide popularity - thanks, apparently, to his ingratiating manner and vivid storytelling skills. Lane, meanwhile, is distrusted as the colorless replacement for fired, strong-principled editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria).
The irony is that we root for Lane as the underdog because he lacks the qualities that we're so often primed to applaud. He's not charismatic or funny, just solid, and that's what you're drawn to when your foundations are being shaken.
Sarsgaard plays Lane with great subtlety and grace. The character doesn't seethe with personal resentment; when he does a slow burn, he conveys a much deeper sense of a man's value system being violated past the breaking point.
The only time Ray overplays his hand is a scene in which Lane is literally applauded for doing his job. Even at their greatest moment of vindication, Woodward and Bernstein just kept typing away.
Christensen makes you forget about his pouty turn as Anakin Skywalker in "Attack of the Clones." His Glass is a studied dweeb who works his colleagues' sympathies by acting like the kid brother whom everyone wants to hit a home run. His standard preemptive defense line is: "Are you mad at me?" It's no wonder that, in the movie at least, he surrounds himself with female editors (Chloe Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey) who seem equally willing to mother him or date him.
What makes him tick? That's the key question that Ray doesn't even attempt to answer. The movie offers no apologies or credible explanations for Glass; it just lays out the movie version of the facts.
It's an honorable, near-journalistic strategy but not a terribly ambitious one. At least Ray doesn't overreach or sensationalize, preferring to tell a lean tale that makes its points and gets out.
And, yes, it's quite entertaining.
Written and directed by Billy Ray; photographed by Mandy Walker; edited by Jeffrey Ford; production designed by Francois Seguin; music by Mychael Danna; produced by Craig Baumgarten, Adam Merims, Gaye Hirsch, Tove Christensen. A Lions Gate Films release; opens Friday, Nov. 7. Running time: 1:34. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language, sexual references, brief drug use).
Stephen Glass - Hayden Christensen
Chuck Lane - Peter Sarsgaard
Caitlin Avey - Chloe Sevigny
Andy Fox - Rosario Dawson
Amy Brand - Melanie Lynskey
Michael Kelly - Hank Azaria