In 1998 Stephen Glass was busted by his editors at The New Republic for passing off fiction as investigative journalism. As writer-director Billy Ray's new movie Shattered Glass shows, he got away with it as long as he did by decoying the fact-checkers with fabricated notes, as well as more elaborate devices (such as business cards for non-existent sources and websites for non-existent businesses); by exploiting his fellow staffers' disaffection when the popular top editor Michael Kelly was replaced by the more reserved Charles Lane; and by preemptively eliciting protective responses from everybody at the magazine.
I see two major angles to this story: what on earth was Glass thinking, and journalistic ethics. The movie, based on a September 1998 Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger, doesn't go into either. (This Salon interview with Glass isn't much more helpful with the former.) For the first half of the movie we watch Hayden Christensen as Glass pad around the magazine's D.C. offices in his socks ingratiating himself with women by complimenting them on their clothes and makeup or by bringing them food, and disarming criticism by saying, "Are you mad at me?" when a superior opens a discussion. Even Chloe Sevigny as his editor, a composite character called Caitlin Avey, tells him to cut it out because she doesn't respond to "Are you mad at me?" but does, in fact, respond (and becomes his staunchest defender when his bogus reputation starts collapsing). Caitlin and the others watch with amazement bordering on parental pride as this self-effacing boy pitches wild stories at staff meetings, recitals that alter his normal body language so much he ends up gyrating his pelvis like a rock star.
Glass's is an extremely weird act: 90% worm, 10% snake. If it were a work of realism Shattered Glass would have to account for how these sides of Glass cohabit. Christensen's Glass comes across essentially as a gifted community storyteller, who is of course telling stories that confirm the group's opinions, for instance, that young Republicans are probably secret sex offenders. What we don't see is what the pitches do for Glass emotionally or where he brings that kind of charisma up from. It disappears as quickly as it arises, without a trace; he ends a pitch with an abrupt return to his usual nasal self-deprecation.
The result is that it's hard to believe that Christensen's Glass could have fooled a houseful of savvy reporters. It would take a wickedly clever young actor to make such a drippy-needy persona seem like a brilliant con, as Sean Penn did in Carlito's Way (1993). It should be funny that (unlike Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can (2002)), Glass gets by on the opposite of charm--friendship with him involves you inevitably in his need for therapy, and even his fantasy of returning in triumph to his Highland Park high school is smarmy. Ray's script is structured as a melodramatic romance, and the movie starts dragging because, although we know that Glass is the bad guy, Christensen seems to be replicating an account of Glass's personality without making it very dramatic. You can't exactly say you wish there were shots of him rubbing his hands in exultation after he's pulled another one off, but it wouldn't make the movie less interesting.