104 mins, opening in cinemas nationwide on 12 February 2004
Watching Shattered Glass at a preview screening with a roomful of
journalists was fascinating. They were rapt, because this film is based
on the true story Steven Glass, a journalist who was found to
have been making up news stories he wrote for the prestigious
Washington-based political journal The New Republic.
Glass was young, talented, and well-thought of – until it was
discovered that he had simply made up, in whole or in part, 27 of the
41 articles he wrote as a staff writer for The New Republic. He also
fabricated material in stories he wrote freelance for Harper’s, Rolling
Stone and George.
This engrossing story is well told by first-time director Billy Ray,
who also wrote the screenplay (based on an article by Buzz Bissinger
for the September 1998 issue of Vanity Fair). He uses a framing device
in which Steven Glass addresses the new students in his old high school
journalism class. It’s a terrific portrayal by Hayden Christiansen, a
Canadian actor better known for playing Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars:
Episode II – Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002).
Director Ray, aided by Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker and
editor Jeffrey Ford, switches back and forth in time, entering the mind
of Stephen Glass and revealing gradually the vast extent of his
deception. We squirm as Steven’s fictional exploits are gradually
uncovered by some basic fact checking.
There is also an excellent supporting cast, with Peter Sarsgaard,
Chloë Sevigny, Hank Azaria, Melanie Lynsky and Steve Zahn all
appearing as fellow journalists.
The filmmakers walk a fine line here – after all, these are real people
being portrayed, and most of them are still around. Making a film about
another writer’s inaccuracies must be extremely difficult. Make a
mistake, and you are hoist by your own petard. In addition, the
filmmakers hint at – but do not explore – pressures that seem to have
been put on Steven by his family. Perhaps that was too close to the
The fact that it was so easy for Glass to deceive even experienced
editors does not say much for the work practices of the time. For
example, when facts could not easily be checked by reference to a
primary or authoritative reference source, editors were content to rely
on journalists’ notes. But as the Glass case revealed, that can be
The reason Glass managed to get away with so much for so long has a lot
to do with office culture and politics. Glass ingratiates himself with
his co-workers, flattering them, remembering their birthdays and other
personal details. He is always humble, even when astounding his fellow
journalists with the amazing tales he spins. The filmmakers show us how
we can be only too willing to let ourselves be deceived, simply because
we like a person and don’t want to think the worst of them.
We saw a similar phenomenon recently in the excellent Catch Me if You
Can (Spielberg, 2002), the story of real life con man Frank Abagnale.
And a few years earlier there was Rogue Trader (James Dearden, 1999),
the story of Nick Leeson and the Baring Brothers scandal. And
even since Steven Glass came a cropper in 1998, there has been a
similar journalism scandal with the case of Jayson Blair, a reporter
for The New York Times. In May 2003 he was found to have invented or
plagiarised portions of over 30 articles in that venerable newspaper of
record. It seems dubious material can still slip through the editorial
As lawyers, we know only too well the dangers of not checking
facts. And we know that sometimes taking people at their word can be
perilous in the extreme. It seems Steven Glass has learned by bitter
experience. He is now a lawyer.