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Shattered Glass (2003)

Read between the lies.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 94 minutes

UK Certificate: 12a

It is 1998, and 24 year old Stephen Glass is on his way to the top of the journalistic profession. He is the youngest writer/editor at Washington’s established political magazine The New Republic, while also regularly freelancing for George, Harper’s and Rolling Stone – and still finding time to work through a law course. Glass is charismatic and popular with colleagues, and his articles are cutting-edge, funny, and draw on a seemingly endless supply of insider contacts and informants. Except that Glass has in fact been fabricating most of the details in his stories – and when Chuck Lane, The New Republic’s dour new editor-in-chief, is alerted by another journal about some holes in Glass’ most recent article, Glass does not own up, but instead ducks and parries with a series of further lies that become ever more elaborate and unlikely, in a desperate, near pathological bid to preserve his shattering career.

‘Shattered Glass’ is about the confrontation between the charming, unscrupulous Glass and the pedantic, serious Lane, and the two very different types of journalism that they embody – one committed to entertainment, the other to truth. When these two figures come into conflict, they stand their ground with the unwavering obstinacy of heroes in a Greek tragedy until compromise between them becomes impossible and catastrophe for at least one of them inevitable. The result is a truly gripping story, full of strong, flawed characters and compelling drama.

Yet it is also a true story, or at least based on one. Stephen Glass, Chuck Lane, and several other key characters in the film all exist – although Glass’ editor-girlfriend Caitlin Avey (Chloë Sevigny) and one or two others are invented composites of real people. Glass’ pieces for The New Republic which appear in the film are all, so to speak, the genuine article, and even if the dialogue can by necessity be only a dramatic approximation of what was really said at the time, in adapting Buzz Bissinger’s Vanity Fair article on the Glass affair for the screen, writer/director Billy Ray has conducted extensive interviews with the main players, even allowing the real Lane to vet the final script. The film itself therefore becomes the very compromise that its characters so glaringly fail to achieve, spinning a great story without sacrificing its integrity or authenticity.

Hayden Christensen is best known for his monochromatic portrayal of teen arrogance as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones, but in the more complicated rôle of Stephen Glass – ambitious, manipulative, desperate to please – he gives his most versatile performance to date, exposing a subtle vein of fragility beneath all the bluster. In a sense Peter Sarsgaard has the more thankless task playing Lane, whose humourlessness and strict code of ethics are hardly typical characteristics of today’s cinematic heroes – yet Sarsgaard’s quiet portrayal of increasing bewilderment, incredulity and disgust transforms his character into far more than a mere foil to Glass’ monstrousness.

Keeping a story entertaining while remaining faithful to the facts is a real and ongoing challenge for all journalists. ‘Shattered Glass’ is a brilliant study of the pressures and politics of journalism which itself finds just the right balance of truth and fiction.

It's Got: Subtle performances, a structure built ingeniously around the self-delusions and shattered ambitions of a fantasist, and a profound sense of responsibility towards its story.

It Needs: To be seen by anyone aspiring to be a journalist.


A brilliant exposé of the pressures and politics of journalism, carefully balancing truth against fiction.