If it’s a civics lesson you need, you can forget about the idiotic Runaway Jury , and you won’t learn a thing from the deadly Elephant . The film that will teach you something about ethics gone awry, and the souring of the American dream in the rapidly disintegrating world of journalism, is Shattered Glass . As much as any profession respected for integrity-more, in fact, than most-journalism has always relied on an accuracy and truthfulness in reporting the facts that have more to do with the public good than turning a profit or turning bylines into media stars. A new kind of gonzo reporting in tabloids and on TV, based on the premise that rumor-mongering, embellishment and innuendo should never stand in the way of turning a thread of gossip into front-page headlines, is now eroding public confidence. No longer as noble a profession as it once was, journalism has taken a number of catastrophic hits recently, from the Jayson Blair scandal that gave the gray-eyed old New York Times a black eye that will have repercussions for years to come, to widespread critiques of journalism’s weirdly uncritical response to President George W. Bush’s media shin-kicking in general and the war in Iraq in particular. The cracks began to show with the notorious shenanigans of the brilliant, egotistical feature writer Stephen Glass, whose disgraceful career is the subject of Shattered Glass , a riveting, scrupulously detailed new film by first-time director Billy Ray with an extraordinarily gripping performance by Hayden Christensen, the bland young hero from the last Star Wars movie who turns out to be surprisingly talented, versatile and persuasive. It’s as painful to watch as it is educational, subtly nuanced and quietly shocking. Even if you don’t care much about the responsibility of the press, I think you will find this cautionary tale one terrific movie.
In the mid-90’s, only seven years out of high school, 25-year-old Stephen Glass, the youngest of 15 staff writers on the respected left-wing Washington-based news magazine The New Republic , was promoted to associate editor. He was a solid game player-effusive, smiling, flattering, popular, idealistic about all of the values held sacred by the serious press. His hard-hitting pieces, not only for The New Republic but for Harper’s , George and Rolling Stone , were praised and envied. He worked exhausting hours for low pay, but he was read by all the right power players and his career was soaring. There was only one thing wrong: He was making it all up. An outrageously colorful and detailed exposé about computer hackers called “Hack Heaven” aroused the suspicions of investigative reporters for an online publication of Forbes , who decided to do some fact-checking of their own. The catalog of lies they uncovered was staggering. As much as his editors believed in him and tried to support him in defending against the charges, they discovered to their horror that Mr. Glass had made up all or most of the facts behind 27 of the 41 articles he bylined for The New Republic . It’s called “cooking a story.” Agonizingly, a brilliant but flawed kid with a tremendous future watched his career obliterated in the flames of scandal. Shattered Glass doesn’t apologize or exonerate, but it does explain what brought a distraught, deeply troubled young man in a high-powered job to crack under pressure.
As sad as this story is, it works on other fascinating levels. Director Billy Ray, who also wrote the seamless screenplay, shows the working habits in a pressure cooker that drive so many young writers to burn out before the age of 30. Rushing to deadline, exposing drugs, hookers and binge partying at the Conservative Political Action Conference, it was just easier to fabricate. Plus it made more colorful copy. The movie also catalogs the internecine dramas among the staff-the jockeying for position among the competitive writers on payroll (Chloë Sevigny is especially good as one of Glass’ chief admirers); the firing of a popular, compassionate editor, Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), by the magazine’s hard, dictatorial publisher, Marty Peretz (director Ted Kotcheff in a rare acting assignment, and very forceful, too), and his replacement by a new editor the staff does not respect or admire, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). In this atmosphere of tyranny and interoffice subterfuge, the stress doubled in Mr. Glass’ desperation to live up to the expectations of so many people. His need for constant approval, the panic and lack of sleep, the work avoidance and the crippling emotional pressure of never-ending deadlines are subjects with which all journalists sympathize. But Mr. Glass devoted more time to elaborate superficialities-covering his tracks, inventing sources, printing fake business cards, planting phony voice-mail messages and bogus e-mail addresses, even creating nonexistent Web sites-than he spent on the actual work itself. No wonder he was turning into butter.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Mr. Azaria, as the late Mike Kelly, and Mr. Sarsgaard, as the conflicted Chuck Lane, are perfect editors. Steve Zahn is the irritating but believable rival reporter who orchestrates Mr. Glass’ fall from grace. The claustrophobic elements in the cramped magazine office all come together in sharp focus-from Mr. Glass’ most worshipful co-worker, a smart, factual reporter whose compassion for her friend clouds her own objectivity, to the switchboard operator who comes up with the one way the entire debacle could have been prevented: If The New Republic did not refuse to run photos. I mean, how can you make up fictional sources if you need illustrations to back them up? The pieces all fall into place, but the mesmerizing centerpiece is the amazing Mr. Christensen. Who knew he could act? With his finely sculpted features and owlish Harry Potter glasses, he is the living embodiment of another Glass-one of the awkward, heartbreaking, dysfunctional Glass family members in the short stories by J.D. Salinger. Watching him get miserably consumed and inextricably trapped by his own lies, squirming on the sharp needles of his own word processor, is a very disheartening thing to watch. And yet at the same time, Shattered Glass is so skillfully and carefully made that it seizes the imagination and keeps you spellbound. At the same time, you learn volumes about how journalism works. In the tradition of Richard Brooks’ Deadline U.S.A. and Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men , it’s both a manual on the finer elements of journalism and a fine detective story with elements of overwhelming suspense.
And stop the presses: The end to the egregious flummery of these ink-stained wretches has yet to be written. While Jayson Blair socks away the publishing money for an autobiographical book about his escapades at The Times , Stephen Glass was hired by Rolling Stone to write a feature covering the Canadian pot laws. The beat goes on.
Loving Hugh Jackman
The new theater season has exploded, and here I am again, out on a limb with a saw in my hand. If nothing else happens for the rest of the year, after The Boy from Oz I think I have already overdosed on the dazzle factor. Yes, it’s about the brief kilowatt glow radiated by the life, career and untimely death of Australian Wunderkind Peter Allen. But that’s just a peg on which to hang a star. Bottom line: The Boy from Oz is a sensational one-man show-business phenomenon called Hugh Jackman, and all those headlines asking the question “Can he save it from the bad reviews?” are a waste of newsprint. The answers are all the same: You bet your ass he can. He is doing it nightly. Frankly, I have never seen any male performer do it with so much passion, talent, energy, charisma and panache in all the years I’ve been attending Broadway musicals. Women have knocked my argyles off many times. Lots of them. But never a real live guy-type person with a hairy chest and a smile as wide as Shubert Alley. Especially one who sings like a mixture of John Raitt and Billy Joel, dances like Gene Kelly, acts with smashing conviction, looks like a camera-ready eight-by-10 and brings an entire theater to its feet, screaming and stomping, just by unbuttoning his pants. Men, women, boys of every persuasion, grannyboppers, prom queens, skateboarders, probably cocker spaniels-to love Hugh Jackman, you have to get in line.
Already a full-fledged movie star who has stolen entire films from Halle Berry, John Travolta, Meg Ryan and a screen filled with buff aliens, he was the greatest Curly I have ever seen in the London production of Oklahoma! Jaded cynics are still raving about his New York singing debut at Carnegie Hall opposite Audra McDonald in the one-night concert version of Carousel . Now, what he has done to, with and for The Boy from Oz is something of a miracle. He has nothing to prove to me. Yet here he is, making his Broadway stage debut for a thimble of what he gets paid in the movies, prancing and sailing and soaring and stopping the show better than Peter Allen ever dreamed of. Here is a star with the power to render the critics impotent.
The show? I was afraid you’d ask. At gunpoint, I can’t pretend it’s one for the archives. Let’s just say it is doubtful that in 20 years it will revived by “Encores!” But at least it moves.
Allen grew up bisexual in the outback, the child of an abusive father and an adoring mom, formed a bogus brother act with a pal, changed their names to Chris and Peter Allen, got discovered by Judy Garland, married and divorced Liza Minnelli, and hit the career skids-all before the intermission. In Act II, he goes solo, writes hit songs, wins an Oscar, makes a comeback at Radio City Music Hall, loses his boyfriend to AIDS and finally dies of the disease himself at 48. The book by Martin Sherman catalogs the facts without nuance or detail, and Philip William McKinley’s direction reduces a supporting army of characters to tertiary traffic. The chief casualties in the sequined gridlock are Isabel Keating, who has the nervous mannerisms and biting wit of Judy but none of the heart (“You’re green,” she says to Peter on their first meeting, “I’ll bet you haven’t even had your stomach pumped yet”) and Stephanie J. Block, who never resembles anything physically, vocally or remotely like Liza. The structure is annoyingly formulaic, like a first-day class in Music Workshop 101. Peter trades insults with Judy, then Judy gets a song. Peter tries to make a go of his marriage to Liza until she finds him in the arms of a man, then Liza gets a song. The story isn’t unique or special enough to build a show around, and the style is raunchily Vegas.
None of this matters, of course, because when the show threatens to lull, Mr. Jackman slides across the top of the waxed grand piano or leads the Rockettes through a high-kicking hall of revolving mirrors on a palpitating “Everything Old Is New Again” in top hats, white ties and tails by William Ivey Long, out-tapping Tommy Tune. With a waist like a doughnut hole, he struts his way through “I Go to Rio” like a Jack Cole dancer from the 1950’s in enough ruffles and feathers to make Carmen Miranda drool. He makes love to the music, the lyrics, the keyboard, the butt-shaking dance steps by Joey McKneely. It may not be My Fair Lady , but it’s a colossal entertainment as long as Mr. Jackman shows up every night and continues to give it 150 percent. God forbid he should ever catch a cold or break a toe. If he is out of this show for one day, the curtain cannot rise. He is the whole frigging show. The lines are long, the standing ovations are longer, but he’s only committed himself to Broadway for one year. So get there fast. A talent as overwhelming as Hugh Jackman only passes this way once in a big fat blue moon. Even in a campy extravaganza like The Boy from Oz , he’s lusty, brawny and brilliant.