It's no mystery why many of us in the media can't get enough of the fabricators Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, the latter of whom concocted more than a score of bogus feature stories for the New Republic (and who wrote for other magazines, including this one, once) in the mid-1990s. Anyone—journalist, student, academic—who has ever stared at a blank screen, their brains grinding emptiness, and thought, "How can I fill this hole?" knows that in those desperate moments before a deadline, almost anyone can do almost anything: make stuff up, plagiarize, scribble senseless half-truths.
So we hate the people who give in to that devil. Obsessively. Every time I feel a twinge of pity and think, "Let's ease up on them, for God's sake; they're human beings," I'll read something that makes my blood boil: a piece of Glass' recent novel The Fabulist in which he portrays himself—in the Shakespearean coinage of his former New Republic colleague Jonathan Chait—as "more sinned against than sinning"; or an item about the former New York Times hot-shot Blair, who agreed to a mid-six-figure deal in a restaurant for his memoir, Burning Down My Master's House, then went over and introduced himself, gushingly, to Walter Cronkite. Suddenly, I'll remember those vampire movies where it's not enough to drive a stake through the demon's heart: You have to cut off its head and stuff its mouth with garlic. You cannot kill these creatures too many times.
Billy Ray's squirmy near-comedy Shattered Glass (Lions Gate), based on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger, sates that sort of bloodlust. It doesn't have the shape of a great drama: It has some whopping omissions, and its uplifting climax (which involves Glass' editor, Chuck Lane) is an eye-roller. But it makes us feel the way our forefathers must have felt after a really good public stoning. The object of our fury is struck a thousand times and yet keeps staggering to his feet: The release of the movie itself is like the final, mortal blow. Of course, it must feed Glass' ego to be impersonated—evidently to a T—by Hayden Christensen between Star Wars pictures. This movie treats Glass and the New Republic as if both were the center of the media cosmos and can't help but confer glamour on its subjects even as it skewers them: the quintessential celebrity-era tradeoff.
The structure is both simple and strange. Shattered Glass begins with Glass—whom we know to be a fabricator, or there wouldn't be a movie—being welcomed as a hero at his high-school journalism class. As he tells the wide-eyed pupils of his illustrious career, the movie flashes back to his life as a rising star at the New Republic, where he was on intimate terms with just about everyone. He was the darling: He wrote zeitgeist stories that managed to be both snarky and gee-whiz—that appealed to the editors' (and the readers') sense of superiority, yet were packed with idiosyncratic and sympathetic details.
In the film, Glass' pitches in editorial meetings are virtuoso cons—but the beauty part is that his relentless self-deprecation seems sincere. He hovers at colleagues' doors as they read his drafts and says: "You hate it. It's the worst thing I ever wrote. I may have to kill myself"—which is the cue for someone like Caitlin Avey (loosely based on Hanna Rosin and played by Chloë Sevigny) to stroke him and say, in effect, "There, there. You have worth." Glass doesn't want friends—he wants moms and dads and big sisters and brothers. He takes off his shoes in the office, as if it's his family's den. He joshes, flatters, teases; he's the kind of Jimmy Olsen type who really does warm up a sterile corporate environment.
Director Ray (who also wrote the script) holds his antihero at arm's length, though, and keeps both Glass' process—the actual fabrication of his features—and his motivations off the screen. We have to infer a lot. We're told, in one scene, that there's pressure on Glass from his Highland Park (Chicago) parents to be successful and famous, but that's never really dramatized. Maybe there were libel issues. Or maybe Ray thought: Who needs another psychoanalytic drama about a kid being screwed up by his mom and dad? But the folks back home are clearly an enormous part of Glass' inner world, and without them the movie feels half-baked.
The other half, however, is very entertaining. Ray does a smashing job of diagramming the ecosystem of a workplace presided over by a capricious autocrat (Ted Kotcheff as Marty Peretz, whose name is—oddly, given the paid ex-New Republic consultants on hand, mispronounced Per-etz). It's Peretz who cans Glass' nurturing surrogate dad, the late Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), and replaces him with Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), the clammy and withholding dad—although Glass dupes both good and bad dads indiscriminately.
I'm not sure how interested the moviegoing public will be in the internecine struggles of the New Republic. But there is a good hour of sadistic pleasure to be had from watching Glass twist when Forbes Digital reporter Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) tries to do a follow-up to a feature on computer hackers getting paid by companies not to hack them and discovers there's no there there. You wonder when Glass will just come out with it: "I'm a fraud." But he doesn't. He tries to set himself up as the victim of a hoax. He gives his standard refrain: "Are you mad at me?" He becomes indignant that Lane won't give him unconditional positive regard, even when he's exposed. He wants to be loved—or at least told, "There, there. You have worth" to the very end. Even today he does, in The Fabulist and interviews, as he waits for the New York bar to decide if he's fit to practice law in the state. (It's possible that his "Are you mad at me?" shtick would be effective with certain judges.)
The performances of Christensen, Sevigny, Azaria, and especially Peter Sarsgaard as a prissy yet achingly vulnerable Chuck Lane are so good that for long stretches the artifice drops away and you think you're watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Only the movie's climax is a fraud: Lane becoming a stand-up-and-cheer hero for investigating and then firing Glass—as if there's an editor in the world who wouldn't investigate a writer publicly accused of fabrications. (Can you imagine a Jayson Blair movie that builds to a standing ovation for Howell Raines?) It's a heartwarming but deeply bogus flourish. In fact, it's pure Stephen Glass.