Shattered Glass

Hayden Christensen is a memorable manchild in the Montreal-shot Shattered Glass

A still-compelling look at a world where fake news had yet to run rampant.

The film: Shattered Glass (2003)

Does Montreal play itself? It does not. It mainly stands in for Washington, DC, and for New York City in a couple of scenes. About 90% of Shattered Glass is set in offices, however, and the majority of the establishing shots contained therein appear to be b-roll of Washington. 

Notable local talent: Jamie Elman (YidLife Crisis, Student Bodies) plays one of the journalists at The New Republic; alongside Luke Kirby, he could be considered “one of the other two” whose reactions are visible in long meeting scenes. Simone-Élise Girard plays the wife of Peter Sarsgaard’s character, though she mostly exists to answer the phone in this particular story. Other notables include 19-2’s Louis-Philippe Dandenault as a drunken conservative bro and Mark Camacho as a lawyer.

Notable local landmarks: As I mentioned above, almost every scene in this movie is set in an office, and I have not had enough downtown jobs in my life to be able to pinpoint with accuracy which call-centre stack this may have occurred in (if, indeed, they are real office buildings and not just sets). One lobby scene sort of looks like Westmount Square, and the sequence exactly following that one has Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard walking alongside a stretch of Ste-Catherine in Westmount just east of Wood Ave. They pause to yell at each other in front of what is now Sushi Crystal (4075 Ste-Catherine W.).

Hayden Christensen and Hank Azaria in Shattered Glass

Lying is fascinating. We all do it, of course. Even if you cannot tell a lie, George Washington-style, you can omit things or somehow doctor the truth without inventing anything. I think what’s most fascinating about lying isn’t the compulsion to lie; it’s pretty easy to trace a line between a lie and what net positives it might bring into your life. Where the dramatic weight of lying really lies (pun not intended but unavoidable) is in the consequences, or rather the step right before the consequences – the part where the benefits of lying outweigh the fact that you have absolutely no way to salvage a damn thing if the lie doesn’t work. Getting away with a lie is the boring part. Thinking and justifying that you will get away with it is a bottomless well.

The events of Shattered Glass will inevitably feel quaint when looked through the filter of 2020, a time when the Internet (a weird novelty that some journalists don’t even know how to use in the 1998 depicted in the film) has more or less rendered the concept of truth malleable to the point of absolute incomprehensibility. With the last four years of the Trump administration, the idea of fake news being bandied about incessantly, not to mention the general onslaught of truth-questioning conspiracy loons in all spheres of society, it seems unlikely that a story about a journalist making up stories in 2020 would gather enough steam to have a movie made about it. (The media landscape has changed so much in the interim that even the idea of 15 people being employed as staff writers at a magazine feels like the stuff of high fantasy.) Nevertheless, Billy Ray’s debut feature serves as more than just a time capsule.

Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) is the youngest staff writer at The New Republic, a venerable political magazine that prides itself on being the in-flight magazine of Air Force One. Glass is hungrier and harder-working than his colleagues (Chloé Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey, Elman, Kirby) and in a somewhat-combative relationship with his superior, Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). Glass still sides with their old boss Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria) in the conflict that eventually cost Kelly his job and gave Lane the promotion. Stephen Glass is well-loved around the office, but there are signs that something is amiss. Glass seems to be performatively burning the candle at both ends, taking on too many tasks and chiding others for not being at his level. He’s somewhat childish in his interactions, often following any inquiry with a pathetic “Did I do something wrong?” or “Are you mad at me?” when no such animosity is suggested. There’s a kind of low-level tension surrounding Glass that slowly comes to a boil when Lane receives a call from a reporter at Forbes (Steve Zahn) who, under the pretenses of attempting to get contact info on principals mentioned in a beloved Glass piece about a young hacker, is actually trying to confirm that Glass made the whole thing up.

Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard in Westmount in Shattered Glass

Even within the realm of journalistic thrillers, Shattered Glass doesn’t present a high-voltage story. Films like All The President’s Men, The Post or even Spotlight have more obvious thriller elements, whereas Shattered Glass’s big electric moment pretty much centres around people furiously punching names into Yahoo. In that sense, it predicts a whole swath of current narrative storytelling — it’s now nearly impossible to have any sort of investigative aspect to your story without characters sitting in front of computer screens. I imagine this aspect is what has aged best in Shattered Glass, a film that is both powerfully of its time and sort of timeless. 

Some aspects of Shattered Glass are better defined than others. A framing device in which Glass is invited to speak to a high school class about his job soon reveals itself to be a sort of attempt at ironic detachment that nevertheless overstays its welcome, and the supporting characters are pretty ill-defined to the point where any scene involving them and not Glass seems pretty superfluous. But as a film about the nitty gritty of work — about the gruelling process not only of writing but of editing and subsequently fact-checking pieces that are often dense flurries of facts, sources and quotes — it’s absolutely fascinating in a way that supersedes the sensible-khakis-and-grey-carpet aesthetic that inevitably comes with the material. Ray seems acutely aware that there is an inherent static quality to the story he’s telling here, and he both leans into it and away from it throughout the course of the film.

Mark Camacho and Hayden Christensen in Shattered Glass

Ultimately, though, a film as unadorned and obsessed with procedure as Shattered Glass can’t really work without a compelling lead performance — and I suspect that the presence of Christensen in the lead is what has relegated Shattered Glass to a footnote in the annals of cinema. It’s true that Christensen isn’t particularly compelling in the Star Wars films, a casualty of both his relative inexperience at the time and the cutting-edge CGI technology that most actors had yet to adapt to. It’s also true that in the last 10 years, we’ve mainly been aware of Christensen when he pops up in straight-to-VOD Bruce Willis movies. But Christensen is legitimately great here, an overgrown petulant child who looks both way too old and way too young to be acting the way he is. It’s an economical script that doesn’t spend much on supporting characters and puts it all on Glass to great effect. He’s a memorable worm and a rare example of a lead character that the film makes little to no attempt at generating any kind of sympathy for.

Ultimately, the world depicted in Shattered Glass may no longer exist but wormy losers with a propensity to lie to get ahead haven’t gone anywhere. If anything, they’ve multiplied. What Shattered Glass lacks in pyrotechnics of any kind it more than makes up for with an uncompromising look at what was once an anomaly on the media landscape. ■

Shattered Glass is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

See previous editions of Made in MTL here.