Glass in ’04
by Daniel McCarthy by Daniel McCarthy
Nobody has any reason to like Stephen Glass even before seeing Shattered Glass, the new film based on his exposure as a professional liar. Then again, like most of what Glass wrote at the New Republic in the two and a half years he worked there, maybe that’s not quite true. Someone might conceivably think well of Glass precisely because he did make a mockery out of the New Republic. The Schadenfreude of seeing such an estimable neoconservative publication taken down a peg or two might translate for some into a bit of fondness for the fallen Wunderkind.
But even that goodwill won’t survive a viewing of Shattered Glass, which damns its subject as not just a liar but also an ingratiating twerp. The real Glass might have been a little more likeable, according to David Plotz, who knew him. Or maybe, as Plotz himself wonders, the cinematic depiction of Stephen Glass might be closer to the truth after all. Shattered Glass is certainly a very accurate film in most respects, lightly fictionalized in places — it isn’t a documentary — but truthful nonetheless.
It’s a reasonably good film, too Well-cast, as critics have noted, particularly with Peter Sarsgaard as Charles Lane, the TNR editor who has to confront the proof of Glass’s fraud. Hayden Christensen is Glass; Chloe Sevigny plays a composite character based on other TNR staffers. The story isn’t thrilling, but writer-director Billy Ray has made the most of it and resisted the temptation to embellish too much or try to convince the viewer that there was any real psychological depth to Glass. Some reviewers have faulted the film for failing to psychoanalyze Glass, but Ray was right not to do so. The film is admirably objective. That might make it a bit boring for those who want spectacular heights and depths of emotion from their movies, but adults should enjoy it.
Admittedly, it’s hard to make the case that Shattered Glass is a must-see unless you happen to be a journalist of some kind. Then it’s worth seeing just for the fun-house mirror of sorts it might provide for your own career and circumstances. It’s of interest too to those who are morbidly curious about journalism; my own experiences are pretty far removed from anything in the movie but based on what I’ve seen of other twenty-somethings working at Washington-based political magazines, I’d say the viewer gets an accurate picture of what the life is like. Except that the one or two TNR people I’ve actually met have been much more likeable and considerably less self-important than those represented on the screen.
It was more than just professional curiosity that made me want to see the film, however. The Stephen Glass story is something I’ve been interested in for a while, since 1997 when the New Republic ran "Spring Breakdown," Glass’s account of debauchery among college-age conservatives at that year’s CPAC conference. I was a college-age conservative, but missed all the debauchery — my first CPAC wasn’t until ’98. Nonetheless, from what I’d seen and heard about at other, broadly similar events I was inclined to believe the account Glass gave. He duped National Review, too, if memory serves. It was in the O’Sullivan-era, pre-Frum NR that I first read about the story.
National Review and I were easily fooled because hard partying isn’t unheard of at gatherings of young conservatives, though it seldom takes a form as dramatic as what Glass wanted readers to believe. Open drug use is rare — I’ve never seen any. Bathtubs full of beer on the other hand are unremarkably common — I’ve sponsored a few of those myself. Glass’s tale of Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan supporters behaving badly was always hard to believe, simply because there usually weren’t many young Gramm-scians or Buchananites at all, especially at the parties. College Republicans of my acquaintance usually preferred the Doles and Bushes of the world, since the whole of their ambition was to rise up the ranks of the Republican establishment.
As for the kind of sexual misconduct dreamt up by Glass, that was rather less implausible. It isn’t particular to CPAC, but almost any time you have college students, "conservative" or not, enjoying what they think of as a high time it’s more likely than not that there’s going to be some impropriety. If that sounds surprising, just look at the New York Times Magazine’s account of young Hipublicans and ask yourself what you think they’d do in such a situation. It’s not just minicons who get up to such antics, of course — what most people who haven’t been on a college campus in the last ten years don’t know is that there’s nowadays a lot less political correctness and a lot more experimental lesbianism (to name just one thing). Where campuses are concerned, conservatives are still, as usual, fighting the good fight fifteen years too late.
The things Glass wrote were too neat and too dramatic — too good — to be true, but for the longest time remained grounded in just enough truth to seem possible. Take the Monicondom, for example. In the ’90s it really did seem like you could sell just about anything by making fun of one or both of the Clintons, just as today conservatives will buy just about anything — from a book to a Barbie doll — that presents George W. Bush as some kind of action hero. Along those lines, consider another tall tale from Stephen Glass, the one about the First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ. No self-respecting Ralph Reed-type would choose Bush 41 for the next vacancy in the Trinity, but if Glass had written about Reagan or had gazed into his crystal ball and foreseen the coming of Bush 42, he would have been nearly right. What else is one to make the outrage in conservative circles over The Reagans and the relative silence over an ABC mockumentary about the "wife" of Jesus? Frank Gaffney, not notably religious but writing on the WorldNetDaily website, solemnly invokes in another context what he calls the "sacred trust" of preserving Reagan’s memory. For what it’s worth, I rather like Reagan and I don’t like W., but it’s clear that both men have been turned into idols of an imperial cult.
Stephen Glass might have had the makings of a first-class satirist if only he’d had an ounce of integrity. A satirist has to exaggerate the details of what is basically true, after all. But Glass had no discernible principles; he wasn’t even a crusading Leftist. Not long after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and before landing a job at TNR he went to work for the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review. Maybe Glass couldn’t have risen as quickly as he did if he had been an honest satirist; as it is he preferred careerism to honesty. He wanted to be as transparent as his name implied, pretending to show through to the objective facts — that he made up — rather than taking on a little color of his own and admitting that what he was writing was actually his own opinion.
Shattered Glass communicates the waste and madness involved in Glass’s behavior. He comes off in the movie as somewhat unhinged, though certainly morally culpable for his actions. By the end of the film, he’s ruined. But there may be a redemption in store for the real Stephen Glass. As a text epilogue at the end of the film informs viewers, Glass has recently graduated from Georgetown University’s law school. He has applied to the New York bar, which apparently does not automatically disqualify people with a record of professional misconduct as bad as Glass’s. His skills in misdirection, manipulation, and special pleading might sever him very well as a lawyer, but a man as talented as Glass shouldn’t just settle for that. A liar as proficient as Glass could have a bright future ahead of him in the White House one day, where he can tell the American people about drugs he didn’t inhale, women he did not have sex with, and all the Weapons of Mass Destruction he found in Iraq.