Steve and Me
How accurate a portrayal of journalism is Shattered Glass?
Finally, Hollywood has made a movie for me. Shattered Glass, the latest installment in the multimedia extravaganza that is the Stephen Glass story, is all about people I know. It tells the story of events I participated in. Its chief eye candy is a character based on my wife. Watching it felt like dreaming: Here was an exact—and yet utterly unfamiliar—copy of my world.
In case you are lucky enough to have forgotten, Steve Glass was the young writer caught in 1998 fabricating stories for the New Republic and other magazines. Glass didn't merely doctor quotes and plagiarize colleagues. He concocted imaginary characters and organizations ("The First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ"), then manufactured fake notes, business cards, and even a Web site in order to trick editors into believing his stories were real. (Compared to Glass, Jayson Blair was an amateur.) This spring Steve published The Fabulist, a lightly fictionalized and wretchedly written account of his fall, then parlayed the book into a contrition-filled, self-promoting 60 Minutes interview.
My wife, Hanna Rosin, was a colleague of Steve's at the New Republic and one of his best friends. He was a guest at our wedding, he helped us move into our apartment, he spent hours in Hanna's office every day, chattering, gossiping, apologizing. But he lied and lied and lied to her about what he'd done, then enlisted her to repeat his lies and defend him against New Republic Editor Charles Lane, who was trying to fire him. Hanna, who wrote about her Glass experience in this review of The Fabulist, was a source for Shattered Glass' screenwriter/director Billy Ray.
Ray scrupulously reported Shattered Glass, and the result is a movie that is a more or less straight retelling of the Glass affair, framed by Walter Mitty sequences in which Glass' fantasies come to life. Ray makes it a morality play about callow youthful ambition. The journalistic milieu of Shattered Glass is all status and buzz: Every character is clawing greedily for fame. Hayden Christensen plays the opaque, empty Glass, who is both weaker and more ambitious than his colleagues, cheating madly to win the approval he craves. Peter Sarsgaard as Lane is the moral center of the movie, an Old Testament kind of avenger, righteous but dark.
And Chloë Sevigny—that's Oscar-nominated Chloë Sevigny!—plays Caitlin Avey, a character modeled on Hanna. In the movie, as in life, Caitlin/Hanna is a loyal and ferocious friend who is ultimately chastened by how she was suckered. This is fantasy come true: A Hollywood starlet dressed up in my wife's clothes, talking sass at machine-gun speed like my wife, and looking as much like my wife as a blond straight-haired American can look like a brunet curly-haired Israeli.
Is Shattered Glass any good? I think so, but I don't know. Lane—the real Lane—has described the experience of watching it as something like being tickled. I know what he means. It was so unsettling to see the fake Steve acting almost like Steve did, and the fake Hanna acting almost like Hanna did, and the fake Mike Kelly acting almost like Mike Kelly that my brain simply stuttered. (Most eerily, the director turned the character of Jonathan Chait, Steve's other TNR friend, into a woman—then cast an actress who looks astonishingly like Chait himself.) As with a tickling session, watching Shattered Glass made me so uncomfortable that I longed for it to stop, but I was so mesmerized that I never wanted it to stop. I became incapable of rational thought: I could concentrate only on my unease.
That said, I was alert enough to know that Shattered Glass felt true. It evokes the nerve-racking, jittery days in 1998 when Lane caught Steve. Sarsgaard—sinister in a way that Lane is not—is magnificently reptilian, all tight lips and slit eyes. He unpeels layer after layer of Steve's deception like he's stripping flesh off a cadaver. It's intense watching him harden against Steve—the first person to repel Steve's emotional bear hugs.
Shattered Glass is the straightest film take on print journalism that I've seen since All the President's Men, and it may become this era's defining movie about journalism. At its heart, Shattered Glass is a procedural: The middle hour of the film—in which Lane unravels a bogus Glass story—is a journalism show and tell. See Steve present his source material: writer's notes, business cards, Web sites, other articles. See Chuck fact-check the article by calling back sources to confirm their quotes. See Steve hustle to stay one step ahead of Chuck by setting up fake voice-mail boxes, recruiting his brother to pose as a source, counterfeiting business cards, etc. As an editor, I found this suspenseful—Hitchcock for the J-school crowd. As a civilian, I didn't care very much: There were no dead bodies, after all.
In one significant way, Shattered Glass distorts the culture of Washington journalism. The movie has New Republicstaffers refer to their own magazine, without irony, as "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One." My screening of Shattered Glass was packed with New Republicwriters, who snorted when they heard this. Ray boosts the self-regard of the New Republic in order to make it, and thus the Glass scandal, seem more important to American life than it is. As a result, Shattered Glass misses the fundamentally ironic, self-mocking culture of the magazine: With a few notable exceptions, Washington journalists are less pompous than Shattered Glass suggests.
My chief puzzlement about Shattered Glass is that Christensen's Steve doesn't feel quite right to me. Our Steve was a lovely, winning, hilarious, endearing person. Christensen's Steve is not. He's got all the Glass tics—the endless apologies, the constant helpfulness, the excessive ingratiation—but while Steve made them endearing, Christensen makes them only creepy. Our Steve rubbed off on all of us, made us think that life could be luscious and fun. We loved Steve, but this cinematic Steve seems too weird to love. He doesn't have enough magic. (He's also afflicted with a slight but distracting speech impediment—or perhaps that's just how Christensen talks since he sounded funny in that Star Wars movie, too.)
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Still © Jonathan Wenk/2003 Lions Gate Films.