There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The function of newspaper corrections, Alexander Cockburn likes to say, is not to admit error, but to convince readers that everything else in the publication is true. That, on a larger scale, is the purpose of Shattered Glass, writer-director Billy Ray’s account of disgraced New Republic writer Stephen Glass. The film’s Glass is clearly meant to be one of kindthe sort of wildly needy, ethically unhinged aberration whose role is to demonstrate the trustworthiness of everyone around him.
Ray’s film, originally intended for HBO and retaining a TV movie’s scale, is derived from Buzz Bissinger’s September 1998 Vanity Fair article. To recap: The 25-year-old Glass was a charming, self-effacing striver who consistently managed to locate amusing and revealing exemplars of the zeitgeist. Building on his success at the New Republic, Glass was able to get assignments for such better-paying (and more widely read) publications as Harper’s, George, and Rolling Stone. For several years, no one seemed to notice that Glass’ scoops were too good to be true. Only when reporters for the now-defunct Forbes Digital Tool began investigating one of his stories, a piece about a teenage hacker who blackmailed a software company, did New Republic Editor Charles “Chuck” Lane notice that the magazine’s ace reporter was actually a fiction writer. The hacker didn’t exist, and neither did the hacker’s agent, the software company they supposedly shook down, nor the Bethesda convention where Glass claimed to have met the players in his article. (The film was shot mostly in Montreal, but such genuine locations as the Bethesda Hyatt do make brief appearances.)
The crux of Ray’s version of the eventsand Bissinger’sis the unraveling of “Hack Heaven,” Glass’ last story for New Republic, published in May 1998. The first-time director, who says he watched All the President’s Men dozens of times before shooting Shattered Glass, turns this process into a crisp procedural. Lane (Boys Don’t Cry villain Peter Saarsgard) and the Forbes staffers (Steve Zahn, Cas Anvar, and Rosario Dawson) chip away at the credibility of the article until Glass (Hayden Christensenyes, the dark side of the Force) finally cracks, like a murderer being cross-examined by Perry Mason. Before he admits making up the story, however, Glass fabricates furiously, creating a fake business card, a fake Web site, and a fake spokesperson for the fake company. Like most pathological liars, Glass was more than a little invested in his deceptions.
The celluloid Glass, apparently like the actual one, is both ambitious and humble, a hustler who nonetheless arouses his colleagues’ protective instincts. At first, he works for popular Editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), who almost catches him in a lie but lets him slide. Then Kelly is fired by owner Martin Peretz (Ted Kotcheff), and Glass finds himself supervised by the considerably less-loved Lane. When “Hack Heaven” begins to fall apart, Glass claims he’s being victimized because he’s a Kelly loyalist, winning sympathy and support from several co-workers (Chloë Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey, playing composite characters). The characterizations and performances are persuasive, and the group dynamic believableif Glass seems to simper, “Are you mad at me?” a little too often, the question is also the Vanity Fair piece’s refrain.
Ray, a veteran screenwriter, has added not one but two framing devices: The movie opens with Glass at a political-memorabilia convention that’s offering items such as the Monicondom, which, because they never existed, the writer chronicled but didn’t actually see. Then the action shifts to Glass’ suburban-Chicago alma mater, where the rising star addresses members of his former journalism teacher’s class. Glass’ remarks to the adoring students, to which the film repeatedly returns, provide both irony and rationalization: The writer, who once did fact-checking at the New Republic, explains to the kids that fact-checkers are powerless against a reporter who documents his falsehoods with falsified notes and supporting documents.
This is one Glass lie that Shattered Glass accepts as truth. Though a fact-checker is unlikely to realize that carefully faked notes are bogus, it’s not hard to establish whether a reporter’s alleged sources are authentic. Glass quoted nonexistent people, portrayed phantom events, and cited fictitious companies and organizations. A publication that runs an article about Jukt Micronicsthe purported victim of Glass’ alleged hackerwithout checking to see if there is such a firm has a bigger problem than one rogue reporter.
In fact, the New Republic did have a problem: Glass’ tenure at the magazine overlapped that of Ruth Shalit, who plagiarized parts of several articles, though Shalit is not mentioned in the film. Also, at least since turning “neoliberal” under Peretz’s ownership, the publication has often run stories that spin facts to support a polemical thesis. This is a common practice at journals of opinion that encourage “contrarian” articles, and it’s not inherently bad. But it is a slippery business, and it creates a mind-set congenial to a Stephen Glass. Although he ventured further into fiction than the New York Times’ Jayson Blair, Glass wasn’t as out of sync with an ideological journal’s culture as Blair was with a mainstream daily’s.
Thus it’s a little disingenuous for Shattered Glass to make Lane (who served as a paid consultant to the film) the hero of the saga, complete with a climactic scene in which the previously hostile staff applauds him. After all, Lane ran 14 Glass pieces, and he didn’t fathom their whoppers until outsiders pointed them out. But even more dubious is the movie’s treatment of Michael Kelly. The film is dedicated to him, and in this telling of the story he appears after Peretz fires himan event that is fictionalized in Kelly’s favorto give Glass a sober lecture. Bissinger’s portrait of Glass’ enabler was considerably less flattering, and it included excerpts from the screeds Kelly penned to people who protested Glass’ bullshit. A neoconservative zealot, Kelly actually assailed one of Glass’ detractorswho was entirely in the rightfor “devotion to ideology, rather than any concern for truth or accuracy.” As the film notes, Kelly died covering the American invasion of Iraq, a country whose threat to the United States he hyped in op-ed columns that were composed without much concern for truth or accuracy.
But that’s merely a controversial coda to Ray’s small, well-made, and ultimately overcautious movie: Better to pin it all on one guy who went too far and leave larger, messier questions to history. For contrarian journalism to live, Stephen Glass must be shattered.
In Britain, where the holiday pop single has not yet been discarded, there’s considerable interest in the contest to become the No. 1 Christmas hit. One of the many parallel narratives in Richard Curtis’ Love Actually turns on the identity of the upcoming Christmas single, and the film can be seen as the filmmaker’s own bid for a seasonal chart-topper: a sweet, crowd-pleasing spectacular that should appeal to all but the most querulous. Having invented the contemporary British romantic comedy with such scripts as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, Curtis now seeks to transform the genre not through subversion but through sheer amplification. His directorial debut is Four Weddings by a factor of 10.
Curtis totem Hugh Grant has a role in this film, but even though he plays the new prime ministerthe movie seems to take place the day after tomorrowhe’s not the principal character. No one player dominates this epic trifle, which seems to include at least one major actor from every British comedy export of the last decade. As the just-arrived successor to Tony Blair, Grant fights his potentially scandalous attraction to a member of his domestic staff (Martine McCutcheon). Meanwhile, the PM’s sister Karen (Emma Thompson) fears that her phlegmatic
magazine-editor husband, Harry (Alan Rickman), is infatuated with his flirtatious secretary (Heike Makatsch). Karen’s newly widowed friend Daniel (Liam Neeson) tries to console his distraught son Sam (Thomas Sangster), only to learn that Sam’s plight is not grief but unrequited love for a classmate (Olivia Olson).
At his wife’s funeral, Daniel wryly cues the Bay City Rollers’ “Bye Bye Baby,” which is being played simultaneously at the wedding of Juliet (Keira Knightley) and Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Best man Mark (Andrew Lincoln) seems to hate Julietwhich onlooker Sarah (Laura Linney) attributes to his secret love for Peter. A wedding guest (Colin Firth) heads home unexpectedly to find his girlfriend cheating on him with his brother, so he flees to France, where he falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper (Lucia Moniz), even though neither speaks the other’s language. Back at Harry’s office, a
family problem keeps Sarah from hooking up with her longtime crush (Rodrigo Santoro). Throughout it all, a burned-out rocker (Bill Nighy) tries to hit No. 1 with a Christmas-themed remake of the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” that hein a master stroke of reverse marketingpublicly declares “crap.” (This summary skips several plot strands and at least five notable cameos.)
Like so many recent Brit comedies, Love Actually takes place in a land that’s been sanitized for your consumption. The only apparent local malfeasance is adultery, and there don’t seem to be any bad sections of town. Even “the dodgy end of Wandsworth,” a South London neighborhood that plays an improbably large role in the movie’s conclusion, is an enchanted zone. To be querulous for a moment, the scenario is less liberal-minded than it may seem: Despite jokes about possible same-sex relationships, there are no significant gay characters, and a surprisingly large number of the film’s plotlets turn on the passion of an affluent, middle-aged man for a younger member of the female serving classes.
That’s rather Victorian for a movie that depicts a Brittania that’s not just cool but uncharacteristically warm-blooded. Love really is all around in this London, which is modern, trendy, and prosperous yet blessed by the spirit of hippie-era luv. (“All You Need Is Love,” “Both Sides Now,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” are among the film’s key musical texts.) If Britain’s traditional rancor has been banished, however, its cleverness has not. Curtis interweaves the various stories adeptly, sometimes linking two tales with one perfect line. As smart and witty as it is sappy, Love Actually is actually a well-tooled rom-com machine. You might as well give up and be charmed by the damn thing. CP