Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Cracks in the media windowpane

Something strange happened to Lyndon and I on the way to review a movie. It was a bright afternoon, and the Sunday drive down Great North Road was brought to a halt by four tonnes of African herbivore. Dumbo, Auckland zoo's sole elephant, had torn down a tree and used the fallen timber to bridge a moat and cross an electric fence. Dumbo was free, running on the road, and eyeballing my Morris Minor like the autmobile was in heat.

As it turns out, we eventually made the film (although the usher didn't seem impressed with my excuse for lateness), and my encounter with Dumbo makes for an excellent intro. Shattered Glass tells the story of Stephen Glass, a writing prodigy in the US magazine industry. Glass had a flair for words, and a knack for finding colourful stories. He'd probably have liked the story of Dumbo, maybe have written something himself along the same lines. And, like me with this piece, he'd probably have fabricated the whole thing.

I don't have a car, I wasn't in Auckland, the elephant isn't named Dumbo (it's Burma) and hasn't escaped since January. Shattered Glass is based on the events of 1998 that saw cracks appear in the work of the uber-writer, and led to the most significant media plagiarism case of the 1990s. The issue has gained added poignancy after the recent affair of Jayson Blair at the New York Times and, to a lesser extent, USA Today's Jack Kelley. (Incidentally Blair was commissioned to review this film for Esquire, before word got out and editors pulled the plug on their "joke".)

Playing in two parts, the first gets into the head of Glass, played by Hayden Christensen. Yes, he is best-known as a young Darth Vader, but this role proves he won't need an encassing suit and James Earl Jones voiceovers once he grows up and escapes the Star Wars franchise. His portrayal of Glass nails self-pity, unchecked ambition and deep insecurity all at the same time. You want to believe him, and you can see why his colleagues backed him for so long in the officer cold war politics that built with suspicions over his work.

The second half sees the film change gear into thriller, as rival journalists sense there's something fishy, and begin digging into details. "There is one detail that checks out," says Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) who looks into a Glass story after his editor berates him for missing a scoop, "there actually is a State in the Union called Nevada." Unpopular editor Chuck Lane (played to understated perfection by Peter Sarsgaard) tries to cover his writer, but eventually has to move against the office favourite.

From journalists as warriors for the public-good in All the President's Men, to journalist as cynical fraudster in Shattered Glass. It only took one generation - and two very good films.