In Shattered Glass, Hayden Christensen wears owlish glasses, powder blue shirts, and a haircut that makes him look like the most diligent economics major at Yale. The neatly groomed preppy-geek style is the look of someone too earnest to care about style, and that’s just how Christensen plays the scandalous young journalist Stephen Glass — as a paragon of eager, stammering sincerity, a sweet boy wired, as if by accident, to a man’s brain. The year is 1998, and Glass, at 25, is the youngest investigative writer-editor at The New Republic. Padding through the corridors of the prestigious Washington weekly in his khaki socks, Glass is a rising star, but he takes care to present himself as the office mensch, flashing a nervous quick smile as he flatters coworkers (”That lipstick is the bomb!”), mixing charm and self-deprecation with an ingenuousness that makes you want to pet him. When he thinks he’s made the tiniest mistake, he asks, imploringly, ”Are you mad at me?” It’s the plea of a brownnoser who cares.
Stephen Glass, of course, is the infamous huckster who turned out to have fabricated most of his articles. He didn’t just embellish them. More often than not, he made them up: the observations, the settings, the characters. ”Shattered Glass” is the tale, scrupulously unfictionalized, of how this fraud gradually came to light, and if that sounds like some ultimate media version of inside baseball, think again. Billy Ray, the writer-director, has transformed Glass’ saga into an improbably arresting journalistic suspense story. It’s ”All the President’s Men” with Tom Ripley at its center.
Right from the start, Hayden Christensen is a revelation, and not just because his performance, all mind games and subliminal facial tics, transcends the rinky-dink teen heroics of the ”Star Wars” universe. It’s because he lets us see that it’s Glass himself who’s playacting the role of an elite young Washington journalist. Glass’ deceptions begin to unravel when he publishes an article about a hackers’ convention pegged to Jukt Micronics, a (fictional) software company. The story’s holes raise the suspicions of a reporter (Steve Zahn) at a Forbes online site, who airs his doubts to Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), the New Republic’s editor. Lane, who has been freshly hired to replace the beloved Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), is resented by the magazine’s staff. As he uncovers the trail of Glass’ deceptions, which extend to faking a website and corporate voice-mail, he’s forced to tread lightly. Lane can scarcely believe what the evidence implies, and Sarsgaard acts with an outrage as exquisite as it is understated.
More than just a frighteningly talented liar, Stephen Glass, as presented here, is a kind of baby-faced sociopath, with two distinct yet meshing sides to his personality. Like all great liars, he mixes sincerity and fraud, manipulation and charm, until you can’t tell one from the other, and part of the intrigue of ”Shattered Glass” is the comic shock of how far he’ll go. (His concocted pieces are often tales of acting out.) Yet the movie, apart from some oblique references to family pressure, never fully tries to explain him; he’s no facile embodiment of the reality-bites generation. It presents him, instead, as a masterfully corrupt fabulist who convinced himself of the ultimate seductive lie, which is that there can’t be anything wrong with telling people what they want to hear.