The actor Hayden Christensen, speaking by phone from the Australian set of the final Star Wars prequel, was comparing his two most recent roles.
“They have different kinds of ambition,” said Mr. Christensen about Anakin Skywalker (who about now should be one rattling voicebox away from turning into Darth Vader), and Stephen Glass, the disgraced former New Republic writer, whom the actor portrays in the upcoming Lion’s Gate film Shattered Glass .
“Annakin’s ambition is an all-dominating, rule-the-galaxy type of ambition,” continued Mr. Christensen. “But yeah, they are both people who allow their sort of moral integrity to become questionable so that they can get what they want.”
The comparison will flatter journalists who picture themselves as great protagonists in the epic sweep of history. But not since the pit-stained drama of All the President’s Men -and the Watergate reporting that was its basis-has that picture been transposed to the silver screen with the dramatic effort of Shattered Glass . The film, which will be released by Lion’s Gate on Oct. 31-but had its world premiere on Aug. 30, at the Telluride Film Festival-is set in the heart of journalism’s roiling schism of self-love and self-doubt, and arrives in time to put a starry exclamation point at the end of a year in which that schism has taken up more self-referential column inches than ever before.
Whether anyone out there is watching-whether the last year’s soft revolution in the fourth estate really matters to the public-remains to be seen.
Journalism: The Treatment
What a year it’s been for journalism. First was the process of embedding reporters with coalition troops during the United States’ invasion of Iraq, which produced almost as much reporting on the war as it did reporting on the reporting on the war. Then came the sad deaths of several journalists in the Middle East, including Atlantic and former New Republic editor Michael Kelly, who played a major role in the Stephen Glass story and is portrayed in Shattered Glass by Hank Azaria. But the self-flagellating climax of the media’s year came in the form of Jayson Blair. The ambitious New York Times reporter’s errors and lies led to the June resignation of top editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, and shot Mr. Blair to the tippy-top of journalism’s 10 most wanted list, above plagiarist Ruth Shalit, Pulitzer Prize–winning fabricator Janet Cooke and, of course, former New Republic scribe and con artist Stephen Glass.
His story, and therefore ours, begins long ago (1998) in a galaxy far, far away (Washington, D.C.), when a sparky young journalist wrote a series of too-good-to-be-true stories for The New Republic . Envied by his colleagues and competitors, Mr. Glass was a much-sought-after hotshot, juggling freelance gigs from Harper’s , George and Rolling Stone . But Mr. Glass was making up his stories, and the fabrications made it past the magazine’s fact-checking department and by Mr. Glass’ mentor and New Republic editor, Mr. Kelly. Forbes “Digital Tools” reporter Adam Penenberg, whose investigation of Mr. Glass’ story about a nonexistent hacker convention and an imaginary company called Jukt Micronics precipitated his downfall, comes into the story after he is chastised for not having gotten the piece himself. Expecting to find the story he had missed, he found the story of his career: a reporter for the vaunted New Republic making up every word of his stories. Mr. Lane, who took over TNR when Mr. Kelly was fired by publisher Marty Peretz, pressed Mr. Glass for explanations to satisfy Mr. Penenberg, and the two men wound up in a narratively satisfying dénouement in a Maryland hotel lobby, where a nervous Mr. Glass’ elaborate stories crumbled.
A 1998 Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger made it clear that Mr. Glass’ downward spiral had itself become the story too good to be true. (The story is the basis for this movie.)
Mr. Glass went into hiding and completed his law degree. He resurfaced this year with his novel The Fabulist , about an ambitious journalist who makes up his stories. He also granted a clammy mea culpa – cum –book-tour appearance to 60 Minutes , and was rewarded for his time on the circuit with an assignment from Rolling Stone , one of the magazines in which his fabricated stories once appeared. (The same week, Mr. Blair received assignments at Jane and Esquire , a double-play that inspired struggling freelancers with its boldness.)
The Hollywood Reporter
Screenwriter Billy Ray, who had done a semester’s tour of duty at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism before returning to his native Hollywood, was commissioned to adapt Mr. Bissinger’s piece into a screenplay for HBO-completing the story’s journey from The New Republic ‘s scrappy D.C. offices to the Death Star of the New York magazine world to the Great White Way.
A regime change at the cable network left the project dormant for several years. When Mr. Ray wrested it back from HBO, he teamed with Mr. Christensen and his brother Tove, who had also been entranced by the Vanity Fair piece. They took the project to Tom Cruise’s production company, Cruise/Wagner, and got funding from Lion’s Gate.
What they created was a quietly ambitious movie that takes journalism very, very seriously. At one point, a full two minutes is spent on an explanation of The New Republic ‘s editorial process. The Glass character describes to a classroom full of high-school students how a story goes through two editors and back to the writer, then through a fact-check, a copyeditor, lawyers, the publisher, production, and finally back through all of these steps again. He also explains how a dry policy story about ethanol subsidies can be checked for discrepancies against “the Congressional Record , trade publications, LexisNexis or footage from C-Span.”
It’s not often that an independent film could double as a J-school seminar.
Mr. Ray was also spot-on when it comes to the youthful strivers who populate the media. In a scene set during a party at Mr. Glass’s apartment, one beer-swilling man observes to another, “If they stoop any lower, pretty soon you won’t be able to tell the difference between Time and People !”
Jealous glances between co-workers as Mr. Glass gets phone calls from other magazines help to flesh out the needy insecurities of the film’s characters.
One of the most poignant moments in the film-at least on the journo-narcissism meter-comes after just such an episode, when one of Mr. Glass’s fictionalized female colleagues abandons her dry business-writing style and aims for Mr. Glass’s breezy, beer-keg bardic rhetoric.
“Is that what you want, Amy?” asks the reporter’s colleague, Caitlin (played by Chloë Sevigny), when she’s read Amy’s freshman effort to remake herself as a journalist with more flair. “To get a bunch of smoke blown up your ass by a bunch of editors?”
“Yes,” Amy replies without hesitation.
Mr. Ray said that his efforts to capture the spirit of journalism were so strenuous in part because he wanted to “apply the standards of journalism to the writing of the movie.” He flew to Washington to meet with Kelly and Mr. Lane and everyone from TNR who was willing to speak to him, some of whom did so “off the record.”
“Billy would make a really good journalist,” said Mr. Penenberg. “Even information you couldn’t get as a journalist, Billy either managed to get or deduce” from talking to as many of the saga’s players as he could.
What he came up with was a portrait of Mr. Glass that-as played by Mr. Christensen-is sweaty, anxiety-stricken, self-impressed and self-doubting.
“Are you mad at me?” asks the unctuous Mr. Glass of his friends and superiors over and over again, until an audience-of journalists or regular humans-will want to choke him with his necktie.
No doubt those same people will warm to the compelling characterization of Mr. Kelly, who cooperated with Mr. Ray on the project before his death.
“There are good editors and there are bad editors,” Mr. Glass’ character tells his rapt audience of high-school students. “My hope for you is that once-at least once-you get a truly great one. A great editor defends his writers against anyone. He stands up and fights for you. Michael Kelly was that kind of editor. He had that kind of courage.”
Mr. Azaria plays Kelly with a muzzy warmth and solidity that seems to serve as a tribute to the late, great editor-and makes it hard to believe that the film was entirely written and shot before Kelly’s death.
“Kelly is the most principled man I have ever met in my life,” said Mr. Ray. “It’s sickening that he’s dead.” Mr. Ray also claimed that the late Kelly “would never have seen the completed film” and was “desperate to see it derailed,” since it told the story of how he missed the signs of Mr. Glass’ fabrications.
Kelly’s TNR replacement, Mr. Lane, is portrayed by the soft-maned Peter Sarsgaard as a humorless pill who is reviled by his young staff of Kelly loyalists. Ultimately lionized for catching and firing Mr. Glass, Mr. Lane served as a paid consultant on the film, visiting the Montreal set on the day they were shooting a scene in which the young TNR reporters rip him to shreds.
“I was two feet from Chuck, and I said, ‘Do you want to stop watching this?’” said Mr. Ray. “He said, ‘No, it’s probably a pretty accurate description of what they were saying about me.’”
“I was worried that I was coming off as this stiff, humorless guy who nobody at the magazine liked,” said Mr. Lane about his characterization in the film. But then he thought: “First of all, you are a little bit stiff and a little bit humorless, so just get used to it. Secondly, the movie reaches a conclusion that if it wasn’t for this stiff and humorless guy, the magazine would have been much worse off.”
The characterization of the prim Mr. Lane as the ultimate savior translates very well into Hollywoodese. We feel sorry for the obviously unpopular but attractive Mr. Sarsgaard, having to take over a viper’s nest of overachieving children after Kelly’s firing by a particularly Mephistophelian Marty Peretz, as portrayed by Ted Kotcheff.
“I’m not gonna sit around and be a bullshitter. If I come off well, I’m not going to complain about it,” said Mr. Lane. “For me, personally, this isn’t the bad episode. I can see that for some people-not just Mike or somebody like Marty, who obviously comes off very badly-it’s not such a great thing.”
As could be expected of fusty journalists unused to seeing their names in type larger than 10 points, let alone their Hollywood simulacra on a real movie screen, most of them are just psyched to be in the movie.
“My wife says Steve Zahn does me better than I do me,” said an obviously impressed Mr. Penenberg, who spoke to the actor by phone during production.
“I just wanted to know how he reacted when he figured it out,” said Mr. Zahn of his interactions with Mr. Penenberg. “I asked, ‘Did you go “Oh my God!”, or is it something you expect every once in a while?’ And he said, ‘No, man’-and he was talking in layman’s terms for me-’this was a very big deal!’”
Mr. Glass’ closest female colleague, Hanna Rosin, preferred not to have her name used. The result is that while the movie features 20-foot versions of Mr. Glass, Mr. Lane, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Peretz, Mr. Penenberg and even Forbes editor Kambiz Foroohar, the only actual woman played in the film is Mr. Lane’s wife Katrina, who appears in approximately one and a half scenes.
The female characters played by Chloë Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey and Rosario Dawson are fictionalized amalgams of any number of peripheral characters.
“There weren’t very many women at The New Republic , just as a plain fact,” said Mr. Lane after thinking for a minute about this point.
Mr. Ray has another explanation: “There were a couple of sources that wanted to remain anonymous,” he said. “Some of them were male, and the best way to protect their anonymity was to make their characters female. It also added to the notion subtextually that people mothered Glass.”
Mr. Glass himself did not speak to anyone involved in the film, though an Aug. 21 Daily News item reported that Lion’s Gate was so eager to have Mr. Glass’ input that they offered him a job.
“I can confirm that the script was sent to Stephen Glass as a courtesy,” said Tom Ortenberg, the head of Lion’s Gate, “in case he wanted to make any comment. We sent it only as a courtesy. We never followed up; he never responded.”
Mr. Ortenberg insisted that even if Mr. Glass had responded to the script, “we would have listened respectfully and acted appropriately in addressing any thoughts he might have had, but we never, ever would have allowed him to profit from this.”
But why shouldn’t he have profited? He was certainly allowed to publish his novel and promote it on national television. The kind of concern that Mr. Ortenberg and the rest of the team behind Shattered Glass are showing for journalism’s rules-much as Mr. Ray had promised early in the project-comes off as sort of sweet. It’s usually journalists and their readers who are obsessed with the scandals and mores of Hollywood players.
But if the lesson of Stephen Glass is that solid journalism, not popular success, is the high road, it’s a lesson the filmmakers hope they don’t come to exemplify. After all, popular success is what movies are all about. Will anyone other than J-geek Romenesko readers be able to appreciate the implications of Mr. Glass’s ethical transgressions? Will they care about the delicately balanced relationship between Mike Kelly, Chuck Lane and Marty Peretz?
The filmmakers sure hope so. They’re opening the movie in a mixture of art houses and multiplexes, and planning Oscar campaigns for Mr. Ray, Mr. Sarsgaard and Mr. Christensen.
“The story makes for a very good film, like a Brontë novel where the woman harbors a tragic secret,” said Mr. Sarsgaard.
But it doesn’t need to be Brontë. It just needs to be compelling. And it is.
No matter how freighted with inside-baseball LexisNexis talk, the movie traces the rise and fall of one hell of a needy kid. Journalism is a good place for those kinds of stories; the power of the recent Jayson Blair scandal should testify to that.
Even the players in the film, like Mr. Sarsgaard, realize that much.
“I wish it had come out three months ago,” he said.
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