Besides wanting to be a cowboy when I was young, I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. At first, a sports writer, then I somewhere along the line wanted to review movies (no surprise there!), and from there it evolved into a news reporter and journalist. In films, the newsroom always looked fascinating to me. Hustling to get the story, beating the deadline, and competitors, the speedy typing, the editor making changes and finally seeing your story in print with your byline on top. That dream faded away like many others, but my love of films with journalistic themes remained. In cinema, many great movies have been made about journalism. Sam Fuller’s Park Row is one of the best, as is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. There are plenty of others including All the President’s Men, Spotlight, His Girl Friday, Sweet Smell of Success, Zodiac, Absence of Malice, Deadline U.S.A., Citizen Kane, and State of Play. There are plenty more that could be added to this list. Some of these films reflect journalism in a good light, sometimes even heroic ways (Park Row, All The President’s Men, Spotlight, State of Play) while others hold up a mirror to the darker opportunistic side of journalism (Ace in the Hole, Sweet Smell of Success).
Today when journalism and the news media, in general, are under attack by a President who cares nothing about the truth, we seem to have forgotten, on both sides of the political fence, that honest and free journalism is one of the most important cornerstones in our democracy. Nor should it be a grandstand for self-serving practitioners who will write whatever will advance their careers and the truth be damned. I ask where are the Edward R. Morrow’s and Walter Cronkite’s of today? Those kind of journalists seem to be a dying breed, if not already extinct.
This brings us to Shattered Glass (2003) a sobering yet riveting look at an infamous incident in the world of journalism. Stephen Glass (Hayden Christenson) was a young and shining star at the New Republic, a pillar magazine of conservative journalism. The New Republic prided itself on the fact that it was read by the elite of Washington including those on Air Force 1. No photographs were required, it was a magazine of words and ideas. Glass was a rising star who wrote both hard-hitting and humorous entertaining pieces. He was a workaholic; Glass also contributed articles to other magazines as varied as Rolling Stone, George and Harper’s. He was well liked and admired by his young co-workers; he flirts with the women and is envied by the men. The boy has a shining future ahead of him. The New Republic staff itself is confident in their work knowing the most powerful people in Washington read their words. They feel like they are in a position where they can change the world.
Glass’ world begins to crack when a call from an online magazine journalist (Steve Zahn) suspects there are holes in one of his articles. The article was called Hack Heaven. It tells the story of a 15-year-old hacker who managed to break into a company’s computer network. The company then allegedly negotiated in hiring the teenager as a security consultant. To cover up his tracks, Glass went as far as building a website for the non-existent company. The company, Juk Micronics, had only one phone number that always was answered with a phone message. What company has only one phone number? Glass, smoothly at first, covered his tracks but the veneer screen around him soon shows signs of cracking, and his story and his world began to crumble. His editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) who at first has full confidence in Glass begins to dig deeper. The cracks in his star writer’s story become bigger the more he investigates. It was no longer one story, but one article after another he discovered were fabricated. More than Twenty articles in total from an output of forty-one.
In 1998, Vanity Fair magazine published an article by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Buzz Bissinger (author of the non-fiction book Friday Night Lights) on Stephen Glass’ exploits. It was this article writer/director Billy Ray used as his source material for the film. Shattered Glass is a compelling film, a morality tale, at times, gut-retching as you watch Glass dig himself deeper and deeper into a hole with no way out.
The cast is a study in ensemble acting. Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Steve Zahn, Chloe Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey are all masterful. Billy Ray who was a co-writer on the 2009 film State of Play, handles the story and camera with intelligence. There is nothing showy, but it is a mesmerizing film about ethics in journalism that should be better known.