Those who view reporters with automatic suspicion have been delighted in recent years by the stories of two cool customers who created moral havoc in historic citadels of American journalism -- Stephen Glass, who wrote a couple of dozen fictional pieces for the New Republic while pretending they were true, and Jayson Blair, who shook the arrogant pride of The New York Times and brought down its two main editors by inventing an astonishing number of the "facts" in his news stories. Glass and Blair are freakish cases of talent distorted by ambition, but moviegoers weren't entirely surprised to hear about them. After all, Hollywood long ago made the unscrupulous journalist a familiar figure in the popular imagination.
Stephen Glass is now the subject of Shattered Glass, shown last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It offers nothing but people talking and operating their computers and checking (or not) their facts, but it proves there's still a lot of life in the idea of a rogue journalist.
Billy Ray, the writer-director, knows just how to run with this subject, and his stars (Hayden Christensen as Glass, Peter Sarsgaard as the tortured editor who discovers the serial fabricator in his midst) make the story compelling, amusing, appalling, even touching.
Shattered Glass takes its place on a long list of movies that portray journalists as dubious characters. As Alex Barris pointed out in his 1976 book, Stop the Presses!: The Newspaperman in American Films, joyfully cynical reporters appeared in popular art at precisely the moment they were required, 1928, when Hollywood was retooling for sound films and searching for scripts that combined dramatic events with engaging talk.
Right on cue, The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, opened on Broadway, just 75 years ago last month. Even though it scorned the already smug New York Times ("You might as well work in a bank," says a Chicago newspaperman), the Times carried a Brooks Atkinson review calling it a "racy story with all the tang of front-page journalism." Eleven days later, in a Sunday piece, he recanted; he now said the dialogue distastefully "smites the ears with the argot of the gutter." He may have spoken with his angry publisher, Adolph Ochs, who thought this superb comedy libelled journalism. In truth, Ochs saw what was coming.
The Front Page ran 276 performances, toured for months, and arrived in Hollywood. The first movie version, in 1931, happily paired Pat O'Brien as the reporter Hildy Johnson with Adolphe Menjou as the editor Walter Burns.
In 1940, Howard Hawks saw a fresh possibility. To him the dialogue sounded like "a love affair between two men," so he subjected Hildy to what is now called sexual reassignment. He cast Rosalind Russell as Hildy and Cary Grant as Walter, making His Girl Friday a great success.
On the other hand, Billy Wilder struck out with his pedestrian 1974 version, starring Walter Matthau (Burns) and Jack Lemmon (Hildy). In 1988, Switching Channels borrowed the Hawksian sex-change but moved the story into television, with Burt Reynolds, Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve -- not, as it turned out, a happy idea.
These reporters may help save a condemned but innocent man from hanging, but they look with contempt on their colleagues, their readers and all politicians. Ever since The Front Page, movies have depicted rowdy, untrustworthy journalists who define newspaper work as what you can get away with. A few movie journalists are heroes, in films like Call Northside 777 (James Stewart springs an innocent man from prison), Deadline USA (Humphrey Bogart destroys a crime boss) and of course All the President's Men (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman bring down Richard Nixon). But for every film that shows crusading journalists, Hollywood makes three in which they appear morally questionable or worse.
In Citizen Kane, the brilliant newspaper publisher lets money and power corrupt him. In Sweet Smell of Success, Burt Lancaster plays a gossip columnist with a passion for humiliating anyone near him. In All the King's Men, a high-minded newspaperman becomes the press agent of a demagogic governor. In Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, Kirk Douglas plays a down-on-his-luck editor who discovers a man trapped underground and contrives to keep him there long enough to make the story a national sensation. In Absence of Malice, a reporter played by Sally Field slanders the innocent Paul Newman and hides behind the permissive libel laws of the U.S.
Moviemakers like reporters as characters partly because their work involves everything from vicious crime to political intrigue, but also because they require a special kind of trust. Much of what they say will always be mysterious: How do they know what they know, and what did they leave out? In the nature of things, ethical boundaries are loosely patrolled, which opens limitless dramatic possibilities.
Shattered Glass depicts its antihero Stephen as one of those charming sociopaths whose personality disorder becomes uncharming only after you realize he's stolen the shirt off your back. His colleagues take a long time to recognize that he's always on the hustle, trying to stay one lie ahead. When he's caught he whines, begs, claims to be sorry and then says, "I didn't do anything wrong." Audiences may be tempted, despite themselves, to believe he's morally helpless.
When the real Stephen's fabrications became famous, many advised that he switch to fiction. Alas, he believed them. The result is an unfortunate novel, The Fabulist (Simon & Schuster), which seems calculated to baffle the few who read it: Glass calls it fiction but tells his own now-familiar story and even calls the narrator Stephen Glass. There are some funny passages, but he can't develop character and wastes too many words on self-pity and self-justification (you see, he was desperate).
Those who told him to write fiction failed to understand that his concocted stories were interesting only if you believed them. His novel shows that while he was good at writing fiction dishonestly disguised as fact, he lacks the talent to write altered fact honestly presented as fiction.
Fortunately, he's accomplished something else since his exposure in 1998: He now has a law degree. At the world premiere of Shattered Glass, the appearance of this fact among the closing credits drew one of the evening's best laughs.