os angeles | In spring 1999, filmmaker Billy Ray asked Charles Lane to retrace one of the strangest treks in modern journalism.
In May 1998, Lane — then editor of The New Republic — had made the same trip with Stephen Glass, a young rising Jewish star at the magazine. At 25, Glass was drawing attention with juicy stories such as the “First Church of George Herbert Walker Christ.” But Lane had begun to worry that the writer’s outrageously colorful pieces were too good to be true.
The day before, a reporter from Forbes online had phoned about irregularities in Glass’ May 1998 story, “Hack Heaven,” set at a computer hackers’ convention. Forbes’ Adam Penenberg and his editor had interrogated Glass about the fishy materials he had provided to back up the story, including a fake-looking Web site. The solicitous, self-effacing Glass had finally said he may have been duped by his sources.
But Lane had a different suspicion. On that day in 1998, he insisted the writer drive him from The New Republic’s Washington, D.C., office to the Bethesda, Md., site of the hackers’ conference. Glass drove slowly and appeared to be improvising as he led Lane to a horseshoe-shaped lobby in a nondescript office building, an unlikely setting for a convention. Lane questioned building personnel — and learned the facility had been closed the day of the alleged event.
An ensuing investigation revealed that Glass had partially or totally made up at least 27 out of his 41 New Republic pieces, including “Hack Heaven”; he had fooled fact-checkers with bogus items such as faux notes and voicemails. No wonder Ray took extra care while turning the debacle into the film “Shattered Glass.” Although the taunt drama is officially based on a Vanity Fair expose, Ray conducted his own interviews, culled dialogue from transcripts and even asked Lane to re-create the Bethesda trip.
When Glass saw “Shattered Glass” last month, he felt he was viewing “a personal horror film.” “It was [like] watching very good actors play out the very worst moments of my life,” he said from his Manhattan home. “And like a horror film, I couldn’t watch whole chunks of the movie; I’d stare at the ground.”
One place Glass found comfort was the Jewish community; several months after his disgrace, he anxiously ventured to High Holy Day services at his childhood Conservative synagogue. “People knew all about the horrible sins that I had done and here I was and what would they think of me?” he said. “[But] no one said a negative word.”
The filmmaker Ray — an avid newspaper reader from age 8 — understands something about Glass. Both grew up in affluent, heavily Jewish suburbs (Ray in Encino, Glass in Highland Park, Ill.) where parents expected children to succeed.
“My family talked a lot about how Jews have always used education as their ticket,” the director said. “The mindset is that you have a responsibility to yourself, to your family and to the Jewish community at large to achieve, to bring pride and certainly not to fail.”
Filmmaker Ray says he could relate to Glass’ mindset. “I know what it’s like to want to get that pat on the head and [be] told you’re the smartest kid in the third grade. I know that feeling … that just keeps driving you, not so much to succeed, but to display the badge of success.”
Despite Ray’s reportorial technique, the film veers in some ways from real-life. There are composite characters, and Hayden Christensen (“Star Wars”) plays Glass, prompting one columnist to note, “Only in Hollywood can Jewish nebbishes get played by WASP hotties.”