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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004

Getting tangled up in the deadline

Shattered Glass

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: News no Tensai
Director: Billy Ray
Running time: 94 minutes
Language: English
Opens Nov. 27
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Truth may be more interesting than fiction, but try telling that to a reporter on deadline, while he or she sits in front of a blank screen in the wee hours. At such times, fiction (or fabrication) seems much more glamorous, entertaining and, most importantly, easier to write. "Shattered Glass" is based on the true story of a reporter who succumbed to that temptation, and his subsequent fall from grace.

News photo
Hayden Christensen in "Shattered Glass"

In 1998 Stephen Glass was a hotshot staff writer for The New Republic, who also had bylines in magazines like Rolling Stone and Harpers -- that is, until it was discovered that he had cooked up more than half his articles and he was subsequently run out of journalism.

At the time of the movie's release in the United States last year, Glass was awaiting the results of his bar exam in New York, and it's a mystery whether the irony of his newly chosen profession ever struck him. How was he going to take "I swear to tell the truth and nothing but . . . " day after day? Since then, he's written an autobiographical novel called "The Fabulist" (for which he got a handsome advance) and made an appearance on "60 Minutes." A similar resurrection is in process for Jayson Blair, a star reporter for The New York Times who also fabricated dozens of articles and was exposed in 2003. The definition for the moniker "great pretender" should include something about journalism.

Written and directed by Billy Ray, "Shattered Glass" is high on dramatic density and revealing psycho-dialogue, delving not just into the characters of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) and his office nemesis Chuck Lane (Peter Saarsgard), but everyone on TNR's writing staff. Witness, for example, how the underconfident and slightly overweight Amy Brand (Melanie Lynskey) is always moaning about how she can't write or get any good stories, casting a brief, tortured glance at Stephen as if to say: "What would you know about my suffering?"

Probably nothing. Stephen is everyone's talented darling, who pads around the office in his socks (as if the place were a college dorm), pays lavish compliments to every female on the premises ("That lipstick is so you!"), and is adept at appearing conscientious, asking "Are you mad at me?" to anyone who gives him less than a beaming smile.

Chuck Lane, on the other hand, is serious and laconic, too proud to stoop to self-promotion tactics. He seems to be the only one immune to the charms of Stephen. So when TNR's beloved editor Michael Kelly (who later died in Iraq -- in the movie, he's portrayed by Hank Azaria) is ousted by the magazine's eccentric publisher and replaced by Chuck, Stephen is even more unsettled than the others. Here's one person on whom his wide-eyed "Are you mad at me?" has little effect.

Chuck, however, turns out to be a fair and even-handed boss, who never lets personal issues override his professional concerns. When he's alerted to Stephen's fabrications, he painstakingly investigates and researches the stories at every step and withholds judgment until hard evidence is staring him in the face. It is only then that he unleashes some well-deserved fury at Stephen, who just seems to melt into a puddle of sweat and humiliation.

For all that, "Shattered Glass" is not an indictment of Glass; rather, it scrutinizes the ecosystem of a magazine office -- and remember this isn't just any magazine but The New Republic, "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One." The intense interoffice competition and the pressure to come up with better, sexier stories every week (by way of salutations, everyone is perpetually asking one another what story they're chasing) turns editorial meetings into veritable auditions: The reporter with the zippiest topic takes center stage.

Of course, this was likely to be Stephen, who struts his stuff with the timing and bravado of a stand-up comedian. And when his colleagues sigh in awe and envy ("I don't know how he does it"), he follows it up with an act of mock humility: "Nah, it's nothing, I stumbled on it by accident."

We see Stephen also as a byproduct of our times, when the approach to fame and success shifted from, say, hard work and industriousness to a "whatever it takes" mentality. The most interesting aspect of Stephen's character is that he seems to think his greatest mistake was in getting caught -- there was very little moral compunction involved, and right up to the end he shows signs of hoping that others will see his point of view: that it was ultimately OK to do what he did, that success was its own justification.

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