'Shattered Glass': Dastardly lies lurk in the shadow of his smile

Peter Sarsgaard, best known for "Boys Don't Cry," has an almost otherworldly, decadent air about him; like John Malkovich, he seems to view the world casually through half-shut eyes, his vaguely sinister voice floating languidly. In "Shattered Glass," the fact-based story of disgraced journalist Stephen Glass, Sarsgaard is cast against type as no-nonsense editor Chuck Lane, who emerges as a hero. It's a marvelously subtle performance, conveying loathing and anger carefully filtered through a controlled surface, finally bursting out in a passionate defense of truth.

Early in the film, when Glass (Hayden Christensen) is still the adored whiz kid of The New Republic magazine, the two men have a brief scene in a conference room, with Glass babbling about his latest fabulous story idea, offering up details like gifts for approval. "Sounds great, Steve," says Lane slowly, and you can see how much he can't stand this guy. He fixes his editor's eye on the younger man, as if trying to read something in his face.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Shattered Glass," with Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, Melanie Lynskey, Hank Azaria, Steve Zahn. Written and directed by Billy Ray, based on the article written by H.G. Bissinger. 94 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual references and brief drug use. Metro, Uptown.

As directed by Billy Ray, the film has an exceptionally tight focus and a fascinating story to tell. Glass, in just his mid-20s, had a bright future in 1998. He was a staff writer at The New Republic, a regular contributor to such publications as Harper's and Rolling Stone, and a beloved, mascot-like colleague to most of the NR's young staff. (An early title card notes that the average age at the magazine was 26.) Watching Christensen padding around the office in his socks, or flirting shyly with co-workers Caitlin (Chloë Sevigny) and Amy (Melanie Lynskey), you're struck by how young they all look, like solemn-faced college kids believing they can change the world.

And Glass was on the top of that world, until the day a call from an online journalist (Steve Zahn) revealed holes in one of his stories. He quickly covered his tracks, making up false phone numbers to check sources, trying to charm his accusers with flattery ("I would trust you guys to know better than me," he says). But soon Lane, like the trenchcoated detective in a classic thriller, is on the trail of truth, finding clues, watching shoes drop. Discovering the extent of Glass's fabrications is torture for him.

"We printed them all as fact, because we found him entertaining," he spits to Caitlin, hating the words. "It's indefensible."

Ray, clearly influenced by "All the President's Men," creates a believable atmosphere of working journalists, in their nonflashy outfits and boxy offices. And he's cast each role meticulously, with actors skilled enough to suggest a complex character with just a few brushstrokes.

Christensen (whose "Star Wars" tour of duty doesn't suggest the fine actor he can be) gives Steve's voice a faintly slurry quality, a lack of definition that suggests extreme youth, or uncertainty. Confronted with his lies, he snaps right back with a defensive, "I know," and a stream of explanations. It's as if he's operating from some internal script.

Ultimately "Shattered Glass" doesn't give us an explanation for Glass' behavior; there's vague talk of pressure, but he remains in the movie (as he has in real life) something of a cipher. But watch carefully as Christensen's face fills the screen in a final, enigmatic close-up; hiding in that innocent, apple-cheeked face is the merest hint of a smile.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com