Nobody in his or her right mind would classify "Shattered Glass" as a horror picture, but like the best examples of that genre, the movie shows a timely aptitude for invoking a vital figure of fear that lives near the forefront of our collective consciousness. The bogeyman in this case is the bunko journalist, that blithe betrayer of the common trust whose wool-pulling potential reached its public apotheosis in the Jayson Blair case. Before there was Blair, though, there was Stephen Glass, who as a reporter for the New Republic hoodwinked his readers and coworkers by generating 27 stories that later proved to be wholly or partially made up. With all the zeal of a townie in an old Frankenstein flick, filmmaker Billy Ray takes up the torch of indignation and goes chasing after the specter of Glass. And if his movie (based on a 1998 Vanity Fair exposé by Buzz Bissinger) doesn't fully demonstrate how such a creature comes to be, it at least gives us renewed impetus to keep manning the ramparts, vigilant for the next monster that may come along.
Glass may be Nosferatu on the inside, but as played by Hayden ("Anakin Skywalker") Christensen, he's outwardly a warmer, fuzzier Norman Bates -- a nerdish apple-polisher who ingratiates himself at the Republic by praising others' stories and indulging in ritual self-deprecation. (These qualities, he tells us in the movie's framing narration, are diametrically opposed to those of the typical journo, who is chronically competitive and otherwise antisocial. Humph.) Caught in a factual error by his sympathetic editor, Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), Glass flays himself so severely over the comparatively minor story point -- he even offers to tender his resignation -- that his credibility on larger issues seems all but assured.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, we in the audience know that Glass is cooking the facts to a whole suitcase of stories, but director/writer Ray's script wisely refuses to concede the dramatic point. Keeping the reporter's true doings mysterious makes the movie a sort of inward-looking "All the President's Men," with Kelly's easily allayed suspicions giving way to the deeper misgivings of his editorial successor, Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). Lane's concerns are in turn spurred on by the inquiries of Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn), a rival reporter whose irritation at being "scooped" by Glass on a major story inspires a personal crusade to ferret out the inaccuracies in the alleged wonder boy's coverage.
Penenberg writes for the (now-defunct) online publication Forbes Digital Tool, and as depicted in the film, the place couldn't be more distinctly opposed to the Republic in terms of working environment. It's always dark at FDT, and its contributors are doggedly reluctant to share their bylines, even when they're fobbing off actual responsibility. In contrast, the Republic is a well-lit place full of the sort of professional bonhomie that belies Glass' aforementioned snap profile -- at least until the indulgent, personally popular Kelly is ousted in favor of Lane, a social outsider unskilled at playing watercooler games.
Ray is a smart chronicler of office politics, which for the most part outstrip actual politics in his adapted story. Aside from an introductory vignette about Glass' alleged infiltration of a Republican conclave -- which, by implication, sets up the Republic as a lefty journal -- there's almost no discussion of the magazine's ideological stance, let alone its criticized move to the so-called "center." While this decision cuts off a few promising avenues of inquiry (Is editorial fraud a worse blight on a liberal publication than on a conservative one?), it focuses our attention on the cracking good mystery of determining just how deep Glass' deceptions run. (It also protects this review from a surfeit of footnotes citing various Eric Alterman columns.)
Ray is preoccupied with the breach of faith that journalistic malfeasance entails, and his wonderfully suspenseful film teaches us that the Fourth Estate is at base an honor system that remains perpetually open to abuse. But to exploit our fears of that abuse to their fullest, he has to forfeit any true investment in his title character. As structured, the movie can't tell us who Glass is or what drives him. The mousy reporter passes some remarks to his fellows about being under constant pressure (both parental and otherwise) to distinguish himself, but how do we know the statements are true, when the whole point of the movie is to ultimately question everything that comes out of Glass' (and, by extension, any reporter's) mouth?
Maybe Ray is afraid of what he might find if he looked too deeply into Glass' psyche. The film is so set on decrying his activities -- a worthy enterprise, to be sure -- that it refuses to admit the possibility of our identifying with him at any juncture. It's actually a less sophisticated treatise than, say, Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can," which dared to suggest that lying and cheating are popular because they work. (And, not coincidentally, because they're fun.) That movie was a subversive shared examination of the bad values on which much of our culture rests; "Shattered Glass" is, in comparison, an impassioned ethics lecture that keeps its object of inquiry at a safe distance. Yes, an unchecked press is a thing to fear. But I'm almost as wary of the suggestion that corruption is somebody else's problem.