- Entertainment and Media
Shattered Glass (2003)
When I was younger, I bristled at the expression "too nice". Considering the atrocities human beings are capable of, it seemed wrong to criticize someone for being nice, especially in abundance. Now that I'm older and (hopefully) wiser, I have since learned that nice is a tricky adjective that has a veritable spectrum of meanings. There is the positive, everyday nice, as in being a kind, decent person (or being a spineless, insubstantial milquetoast) and then there's "nice" (quotation marks intentional and cautionary), as in manipulative, passive aggressive, disingenuous, and charming. Not the "charming" of the gracious or princely variety, but the same way the hideous anglerfish or a cult leader is charming. Think of it this way: Mr. Darcy is good, Mr. Wickham is "nice". When I worked at a public library, I had a patron like that: breathlessly polite and apologetic, ostensibly the sweetest guy in the room… all in an attempt to distract us from the fact that he all but set up camp in the library, ate, drank, and did push-ups in the stacks (no, really), and would pick arguments with other patrons over imagined slights. Yes, I'd say he deserved the label of "too nice", and was therefore not to be trusted.
The concept of "nice" is explored in Billy Ray's masterful 2003 film Shattered Glass. Based on the appalling true story of how wunderkind journalist Stephen Glass snowed the country by fabricating nearly 30 articles he wrote for The New Republic, Shattered Glass is an intelligent film about how otherwise smart and worldly people can be hoodwinked by youth and easy charm. Just like in my recent review for Ben-Hur, I love this movie because it's about the triumph of good, only with more complex narrative framing. It's not so much a story of good over evil (though Stephen Glass, from what I've read, sounds like a grade-A prick), but the triumph of good over "nice".
It's 1998, and we are informed that The New Republic is not only "the in-flight magazine of Air Force One", but has a staff with a "median age of 26". The youngest and brightest is Stephen Glass (a surprisingly good Hayden Christensen), a Penn graduate who joined the magazine at the tender age of 23 and who has also contributed articles to Harper's and Rolling Stone. Not only is Stephen a hotshot, he's the most popular person at TNR, because of his down-to-earth personality, modesty, and puppyish eagerness to please. He always showers his secretary with compliments, throws parties for the staff, and has a boyish grin and blonde hair that begs to be rumpled. Whenever he does something wrong, he all but assaults someone with apologies. His co-workers Caitlin (Chloe Sevigny) and Amy (Melanie Lynsky) are almost maternal towards him, and TNR's beloved editor, Michael Kelley (Hank Azaria, playing it mellow for a change), is proud and protective of his star employee. Whenever Stephen pitches stories in meetings, he never fails to win applause or hoots of laughter, and no one ever resents him for basically upstaging everyone else, because, gosh darn it, he's so likable! There's no doubt about it: Stephen is certainly the untouchable golden boy of TNR. He's the type of person you feel wrong about disliking.
All is well at TNR under the kindly guidance of Michael, who is that rare species of boss that is both respected and liked. But when Michael is fired as editor by TNR's tyrannical owner, he is replaced by colleague Chuck Lane (Peter Saarsgard), who is the polar opposite of Michael and especially the popular Stephen: a reserved, thirty-something family man with a solemn face and a cool demeanor, Chuck is not well-liked at TNR. The staff (egged on, in no small part, by Stephen) views Chuck as an opportunistic stick-in-the-mud who is conspiring to fire anyone who was "loyal to Michael". Chuck may not be the life of the party, but he is an honest, principled man, and it's evident that the poor guy wants to be regarded in the same positive light Michael was, but he isn't about to change who he is to achieve that.
One day, Stephen publishes what is easily his best article: "Hack Heaven", a piece on a teenage hacker who hustled his way into staggering fortune by breaking into a major corporation called Jukt Micronics's website. Stephen writes about witnessing everything from a packed-to-the-gills hackers' convention, to negotiations between the hacker, his mom, his agent ("yes, hackers have agents, too," Stephen brightly informs us) and the heads of the corporation. Once again, Stephen has stolen the show with this fun, brilliant, and unique story. The article's such a hit, Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn, also playing against type), a snarky writer for Forbes, decides to investigate. After all, how did a story this good miss his radar? Right away Adam becomes Toto, exposing the man behind the curtain. He does a Yahoo! search for Jukt Micronics: nothing. The name of the hacker in the phone book: no go. Name of the agent: there's no such person. Hole after hole appears in Stephen's story, and Adam and his colleagues salivate at the idea of taking the "snobbiest rag" in America down a peg. We learn early on how TNR is religious about fact-checking, so how could they let this happen? The editor of Forbes threatens to expose Stephen's article as a fabrication. Stephen is all tears and apologies, so much so that Chuck is willing to defend him, despite TNR's reputation being on the line. Stephen's just a kid, he reasons, and lots of journalists are fooled by their sources, right? Besides, Stephen has his notes, the web address for Jukt Micronics, their number, the agent's business card, and one of the heads of Jukt Micronics even calls Chuck at home, so what's the problem?
As it turns out, plenty: the website for Jukt Micronics looks like something an amateurish beginner half-heartedly threw together in computer class. Their number always has a voice mail, and there's only one phone line. The person who calls Chuck sounds way too young. The business card is an embarrassing fake. Chuck likes Stephen, and wants to believe him, mainly because everyone else does. Through it all, Stephen defensively maintains that he's been had, and piles on excuse after excuse. It's at this time that Stephen's usual charm starts to grate on us. He stammers, whines, and begins to get snappish with people. "Are you mad at me?" and "I didn't do anything wrong" become his catchphrases, and even the most sympathetic viewer will start to wonder why Stephen can't just own up to his mistake with a little more grace and dignity.
It's also at this time that our allegiances begin to shift, as the true characters of these men begin to emerge. Stephen steadfastly holds on to his story, even when Chuck drags him to the alleged locations of his story. No cigar for guessing that it's more prime B.S., as neither were even open on the day and/or hours the story took place. Stephen goes from sheepish to nasty as he angrily defends himself, even though the jig is undeniably up. Chuck, meanwhile, dusts off his bullshit barometer, strengthens his spine, and keeps the ball rolling, refusing to fall for Stephen's crocodile tears. He initially suspends Stephen, but when it dawns on him that "Hack Heaven" wasn't an isolated incident, Chuck puts Stephen in his place and fires him. Caitlin, ever the mother hen, confronts him on Stephen's behalf, and Chuck finally snaps with this fantastic speech that had me pumping my fist and cheering him on:
When this thing blows, there isn't going to be a magazine anymore. If you want to make this about Mike, make it about Mike. I don't give a shit. You can resent me, you can hate me, but come Monday morning, we're all going to have to answer for what we let happen here. We're all going to have an apology to make! Jesus Christ! Don't you have any idea how much shit we're about to eat? Every competitor we ever took a shot at, they're going to pounce. And they should. Because we blew it, Caitlin. He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed them all as fact. Just because... we found him "entertaining." It's indefensible. Don't you know that?
Forgive my hyperbole, but I found that scene to be one of the most beautiful moments of character development I've ever seen. In that that moment, Chuck realizes that being the boss is about doing the right thing, not about being liked. Any fool or sociopath can be liked, but it takes a real man to say "screw popularity" and do what's right, no matter how it makes him look. Up until now, it has been tempting to sneer at his concern for TNR's reputation, but now that Stephen's spell has been broken, we see the situation from Chuck's point of view. He cares about TNR's image? Yes, yes he does, because he should. People's jobs, reputations and futures are on the line, and it's all because of Stephen. Ask yourself this: if you were an editor, would you hire one of Stephen's co-workers? Would you hire someone who was allegedly so incompetent that they didn't know how to fact-check and spot a fake article? Someone who possibly knew what Stephen was and did nothing about it, and therefore couldn't be trusted? Sound unfair? Doesn't matter, because that's the real world, and the real world is far from fair or nice.
And that's what makes Shattered Glass strike a nerve, because it's such a sad but true statement on human nature. It's so easy to fall for the Stephens, the people who pile on flattery, bring the fun, and who are always so, so sorry they did something wrong, even though they keep screwing up. Likewise, we're dismissive of the Chucks, the ones whose rectitude, integrity, and dependability are overlooked, because they're considered boring and don't come in a pretty package. In other words, if it isn't fun, why should we like it? If we're to compare Stephen and Chuck to food, Stephen is the new bag of Doritos that's tasty and addictive, despite being half full of air and loaded with empty calories. Chuck is the meal consisting of meat, potatoes, and vegetables that's overly familiar and not very exciting, but it's good for you and, ultimately, more nourishing and satisfying. When Stephen's actions finally come to light, and his colleagues are forced to admit they were duped, it is a sobering moment for everyone involved. It's especially striking that Stephen ditches his affable facade, becoming a dour cipher as he becomes surrounded by lawyers. You know someone has admitted defeat when they have to throw out their old bag of tricks and let chips fall where they may.
I only hope that I haven't made Shattered Glass sound preachy, because it is in fact a hell of an entertaining movie, unwinding with the delicious suspense of an old-fashioned caper. Billy Ray's direction and screenplay are refreshingly smart and adult, never pandering to its audience. The cast is incredibly rock solid, and I have to hand it Christensen, he makes you forget his infamous turn as Anakin Skywalker. He makes you buy Stephen's lovability, and as the movie progresses, he shows the cracks in Stephen's personality, his innocent face becoming hard and cold. Yet it's understandable why Peter Saarsgard stole the show, earning heaps of praise and accolades over everyone else. It is a thankless task to play the clear-eyed hero, especially one that's ostensibly a little dull, but Saarsgard conveys strength and sensitivity with minimal body language and mostly his large, dark eyes. Understated acting is difficult, almost Herculean, and even otherwise talented actors get it wrong, coming off as blank and stony as a result. Aspiring actors should study Saarsgard's performance as a perfect example of understated acting done right. Not that that's all he does, because in addition to Chuck's impassioned speech to Catelyn, there is a lovely moment towards the end where Chuck is greeted with a letter of apology to TNR's readers regarding Stephen's articles. It is signed by all the staff members, and even the stoic Chuck can't help but melt a little. We know that it's not just an apology to TNR's loyal readers, but an apology to the unfairly maligned Chuck, who has gained everyone's respect at last.
Shattered Glass does give a "where are they now?" epilogue for the people involved (Michael Kelly tragically died covering the war in Iraq), but a decade has a way of whizzing past us, and, if the Internet is to be believed (if nothing else, this movie will teach you to be more skeptical), Chuck Lane is still writing and has taught at both Princeton and Georgetown University. For the most part, karma has been good to him.
But wait, don't think I've forgotten about our old pal, Stephen Glass! Apparently, Glass went onto earn a law degree at Georgetown University Law Center (feel free to make all the lawyer jokes you want) and published an autobiographical novel in 2003 called The Fabulist, which is basically a self-serving, "poor little me" fan fiction version of The New Republic scandal, and do I even need to tell you that he casts Chuck Lane in a negative light? I'm pleased to report the novel was panned by critics, and, in January of this year, California denied Glass's bar admission. If you want to get your daily dose of schadenfreude, read more at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/01/27/stephen-glass-denied-admission-to-the-california-bar/.
Shattered Glass is an exquisitely made film that teaches us to be wary of people who try to insinuate themselves into our good graces, and to be a little more fair to the quiet, not-as-charming people who try to earn our respect as opposed to forcing it out of us. Dare to ask yourself if someone is nice like Chuck, or "nice" like Stephen.