'Shattered Glass" is the best movie about American journalism since "All the President's Men." In fact, the new picture is better than its popular predecessor, since it doesn't grasp for audience appeal by casting major stars like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in charismatic leading roles.
More intimate in its approach and much closer to the everyday world of real journalism, "Shattered Glass" is at once an involving fact-based drama and a cautionary tale - showing how even a periodical that prides itself on conscience and conscientiousness can find its own editors badly served, not to mention its readers.
The main character is Stephen Glass, a real-life writer for The New Republic who had become a rising star on the basis of his plucky reporting and colorful prose. Mr. Glass was unmasked in the late 1990s as a flat-out fraud who had juiced up, distorted, or simply invented many of the "facts" in his celebrated articles. Of his 41 published pieces, his editors eventually calculated, no fewer than 27 were partly - or even wholly - products of his overripe imagination.
Based on a 1998 article in Vanity Fair, the movie begins when Glass has already charmed his editors, built a loyal following of readers, and become the envy of other TNR staffers with his hyperactive (and lucrative) freelance articles for other magazines - all while still in his 20s.
Is there no limit to his talent and energy? Of course there is, but his bosses and peers appear to take vicarious pleasure in the boy wonder's almost superhuman abilities. Even the magazine's fact-checking department cuts him a lot of slack, taking his verbal say-so when a less adored writer would have been asked for notes and sources.
What brought him down was an article so utterly bogus that it caught the attention of an Internet writer, who started investigating on his own. The story in question, headlined "Hack Heaven," told how a teenage computer whiz used wit and chicanery to extort payments from a software company.
Almost nothing in Glass's article was true, the investigative reporter found - not the people, not the places, not the events described in entertaining detail. Soon a TNR editor was delving into the young writer's past pieces, belatedly uncovering a dismayingly large amount of highly dubious information presented to readers as accurate and true.
Hayden Christensen, best known as Anakin Skywalker, presents a thoughtful and sometimes touching portrait of Glass, painting him as a career-obsessed young man whose very real talent is sabotaged by a risk-taking mentality and a desperate need to impress his colleagues. Also impressive are Steve Zahn as the writer who blows Glass's cover, Peter Saarsgard as the editor who eventually lowers the boom, and Chloë Sevigny as another staffer at the magazine.
All give heartfelt, unflashy performances that help make "Shattered Glass" one of the season's most thoughtful offerings.
• Rated PG-13; contains vulgar language and sexual dialogue.