Stephen Glass became a journalist and associate editor at the venerated The New Republic in the mid-1990s. He was in his mid-twenties. (He was also published in George and Rolling Stone.) As it happens, he was making up quotes, making up whole articles even, inventing people and places. He was trying desperately to keep up with expectations of him, in fact; but you would hardly guess this from the vague, silly film that Billy Ray wrote and directed about his ordeal, which casts Glass as the villain, or at least pretends to, and casts his editor, Charles Lane, as the hero—or at least pretends to. There’s no reasonable approach to this material, however, where Lane isn’t the one who is the villain. His mistreatment of Glass, who is ten years his junior, is unmotivated according to the meager information that the movie provides. Indeed, Lane is so astoundingly unkind and insensitive that one doubts that any motivation could account for his behavior. It doesn’t help that Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Lane, gives a bent-out, humorless performance. (Others may disagree. Sarsgaard received a number of year-end prizes as best supporting actor, including the accolade from the National Society of Film Critics.)
In the commentary that he provides on the DVD of the movie, Ray asserts that he wanted to approach the material “as a journalist.” Thus he gives us gratuitously accurate atmosphere in the New Republic office in Washington, D.C. (as though many of us will ever be able to corroborate this), but withholds vitally necessary context on two ends. One involves Glass’s alleged crimes. This film never convinces me, at least, that Glass did anything so horrific, nor do suggestions of normal journalistic integrity settle the matter. If Glass did something wrong, the film has to make some sort of a case against him without resorting to platitudes and clichés. The two times that the script attempts to bestow dignity on TNR—or, as it’s referred to in the film, The New fucking Republic—by noting it’s “the in-flight news magazine of Air Force One” amount to pointless drivel. The “tall tale” occupies a much higher seat in American tradition and culture, and, if it’s a showdown between the two, a mischievous license to lie in print must trump spurious notions of journalistic integrity. The ghost of Ben Franklin wouldn’t have it any other way. The usual defense of journalistic scrupulousness—a case that the film might have made but (wisely) didn’t—is that the maintenance of democracy requires that the citizenry be given accurate information. This won’t wash here. TNR’s small circulation, to which the film itself alludes, diminishes this requirement, which is canceled altogether by the marginal and sensational nature of the pieces that Glass generally wrote. The piece that would prove his downfall, for instance, is about a convention of computer hackers quite taken over by a teenaged boy flanked by his agent and his mom. (The disaster comes when an online magazine fact-checks the piece.) All this Glass made up; the exposure of Glass’s lies serves only to make democracy smile, no matter the anxiety and near ruin it afflicted on Glass himself. Sarsgaard’s humorlessness as Lane, then, is strategic; it’s to intimidate us from breaking into any kind of joy over young Glass’s prodigious gifts for fantasy and whoppers.
The film makes a good deal about Glass’s attempts to give credibility to his shenanigans, as though his fear of exposure and possibly implicit guilt certify the manipulative nastiness and evil of his ways. To corroborate sources, the boy invents a business card and even constructs a Web site; he enlists the aid of an older brother to impersonate someone who really doesn’t exist. Horrors! From what we see, however, Glass, relentlessly bullied by Lane, is perfectly entitled to defend himself in ways that are part of the same fabric of fabrications as the articles themselves that he wrote. The kid was in a groove.
The other failure of the film to provide context is even more debilitating. As uncurious a journalist as ever existed, Ray has nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of Glass’s motivation. Lane, joining Ray on the DVD commentary track, notes that Glass was fully capable of creating legitimate stories. Why didn’t he do so exclusively then? One can approach this question from two fronts. One is psychological. What in Glass’s personal history brought him to such antics? More importantly, what about TNR and, more generally, competitive journalism prompted Glass’s behavior? In a 60 Minutes piece also included on the DVD, TNR’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, all but implies the encouragement that Glass was given by being treated as a young hotshot, a wunderkind, whose “pitches” for articles that he made at staff meetings were greeted with ever more delight and awe. By contrast, Lane’s suggestion on the DVD commentary track that Glass’s dissembling had something to do with Bill Clinton is noxious and ridiculous.
Ray’s cutter, Jeffrey Ford, has devised some fancy editing footwork blending actual meetings and scenes of Glass’s fantasies. The film is fraudulently framed by a triumphant visit by Glass to a school class of budding journalists. The whole thing is Glass’s fantasy. The (perhaps) unintended implication is that Glass is delusional. Nothing in the film, though, supports the idea that Glass is delusional. Clearly, Ray is an incompetent who is incapable of controlling the meanings that arise from the film that he has wrought—although, since on the commentary track he credits his cinematographer, Mandy Walker, with the film’s visual aspect (that’s his, not her principal responsibility), it’s unclear in what sense he is the film’s maker. Indeed, the bevy of assistant directors involved in the project—a film with little action—further begs the question: Just what did Ray contribute to the making of his own film?
Hayden Christiensen plays Stephen Glass close to the vest. He looks remarkably like Glass. It’s a shallow performance.
Postscript: Glass has since written a novel, The Fabulist, about a chap engaged in activities echoing Glass’s, and he has earned a law degree. No comment.