Last week, we recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about good performances from bad actors, and I made mention of an uncharacteristically good turn from Hayden Christensen. In 2003, Christensen had already become a major Internet whipping boy for his wooden portrayal of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Of course, pretty much all the performances in the Star Wars prequel trilogy were wooden, but when you’re able to turn the likes of Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson into boring actors, you definitely lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of George Lucas. However, fanboys weren’t so quick to cut Hayden Christensen some slack because he didn’t much of a track record to showcase his capabilities. Yet in between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Christensen did manage to deliver a surprisingly strong performance in Shattered Glass, a drama based on the true story of notorious fraudster Stephen Glass. Glass was a young journalist who had written several memorable stories for the renowned magazine, The New Republic, and seemed to have stellar career ahead of him until it was discovered that many of these stories were completely fabricated. Glass has always been regarded as a socially awkward enigma, but this role seemed to fit Christensen surprisingly well. He may very well still be a wooden actor, but, well… that trait can actually be a virtue when you’re portraying a socially awkward enigma.
The movie begins in the mid-1990s when Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) is the young rising star at The New Republic. As we learn in the opening scenes, The New Republic has been around since 1914 and is such a prestigious publication that it’s the in-flight magazine for Air Force One. Stephen seems to have a talent for digging up some pretty crazy and entertaining stories. Even when these stories sound too unbelievable to be true, he always seems to have the facts and sources to back them up. Stephen’s crowning achievement seems to be a piece called “Hack Heaven”, the story of teenage hacker who is offered the job of a security consultant at a software company after successfully hacking into their system. However, when Forbes magazine reporter Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) learns about the piece, he becomes suspicious and does a thorough investigation. He ultimately finds no corroborating evidence to back up Stephen’s wild story and Forbes brings all these discrepancies to the attention of New Republic editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). By this point, Stephen has endeared himself so well to his co-workers that none of them can possibly believe that he’d fabricate an entire story. However, Chuck instantly senses that something is seriously wrong and starts to unravel Stephen’s web of lies. He eventually comes to the horrifying realization that not only is “Hack Heaven” a complete work of fiction, but that Stephen has completely fabricated the majority of the stories he published!
Whenever I see stories about elaborate hoaxes, the most fascinating aspect is not the hoax itself, but the desperate attempts to keep it going when the whole thing starts to unravel.
I’ve previously detailed the criminally underrated 2007 film, The Hoax, which detailed author Clifford Irving’s elaborate attempts to fabricate an autobiography about Howard Hughes. It’s fascinating to watch Clifford Irving and Stephen Glass constantly think on their feet once suspicion has mounted, as they keep inventing new lies in order to cover up the old ones. But while Irving concocted his hoax because he was a struggling writer desperate to revive his fledging career, the motives of Stephen Glass have always been a lot more murky. Glass was just starting out in the journalism business and given how well-liked he was by his peers, he probably could have launched a great career without having to resort to making shit up. Shattered Glass won’t leave you with any definitive answers about why Stephen did what he did, but he probably couldn’t tell you either. Looking back at the whole situation, it’s mind-blowing to think Stephen could have kept the ruse for so long and successfully fabricated no less than 27 stories before anybody caught on. However, as the movie demonstrates, a lot of it had to do with Stephen Glass’ persona. He has such a wide-eyed naivety and child-like innocence that no one could possibly fathom him being a fraudster. Hayden Christensen does a good job of encapsulating that side of his character, as you gradually realize there’s something off about Stephen and his compulsive desire to be liked by everyone.
The man behind Shattered Glass was Billy Ray, a long-time Hollywood screenwriter who was making his directorial debut with this film. Ray worried that this story might not make for a compelling film until he realized that the real protagonist here was not Stephen Glass, but his editor, Chuck Lane. Brought to life with a typically strong performance by Peter Sarsgaard, Chuck is not particularly popular with his staff after taking over the job of a much more likable predecessor and he soon finds himself in an incredibly difficult position once Stephen’s fraudulent activity is exposed. As the story goes on, you wind up sympathizing a lot more with Chuck than Stephen. The scenes where Stephen’s lies keep falling apart and Chuck gradually realizes the gravity of this deceit make for electric cinema. There’s great chemistry between Christensen and Sarsgaard here and it’s almost hard to resist cheering once Chuck reaches his breaking point and decides he’s no longer going to fall for Stephen’s bullshit attempts to garner sympathy. The movie is also a pretty fascinating look at the early days of the Internet journalism as Adam Penenberg’s expose on Glass was seen as a major breakthrough in that field. Given how much the Internet has grown in the past 16 years, it would very difficult for a hoax of Glass’ magnitude to sustain itself as long as it did. In the end, Stephen Glass moved on from this scandal and obtained a law degree, but for obvious reasons, his attempts to become a licensed attorney have been unsuccessful. Overall, Shattered Glass is a very compelling and fascinating look at how elaborate hoaxes become successful… and the type personality which is required to orchestrate one.