In Mein Kampf, Hitler discussed the concept of the Big Lie. If a lie was big enough, he said, no one would disbelieve it. This is often talked about with the beg-the-question assumption that Hitler came up with the idea and was putting it forward as a means of advancing Nazi wickedness. This is arse-about. It's perfectly clear in Mein Kampf that Hitler was actually pointing out what he viewed as a Jewish trait. If you find this thought repellent - don't watch this movie without you banish it from your head. And by all means don't read this review. Says I, Shattered Glass is far more than a suspenseful drama in which truth battles falsehood and triumphs. It's also that impossible thing - a stunning dissection of Jewish lying. It's all here, laid bare in perfect microcosm.
Frankly I'm astounded that this film was allowed to be made at all. There is nothing quite like it. Not only does it tackle impossible themes but it does so with a marvellous narrative structure, word-perfect dialogue, and a series of flawless, underplayed performances from an ideal cast. Hats off to Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Zahn, and the coolest chick on the planet, Rosario Dawson. Let's not forget Hayden Christensen. His performance as Glass, the eponymous epitome of whining, pathological hatefulness is so spot-on that one begrudges handing him the praise he deserves. My wish to smash his teeth in is precisely a testament to how good he is, ha ha. Sorry Hayden, nothing personal mate!
Briefly, Shattered Glass is the based-on-a-true-story of Stephen Glass, the journalist at The New Republic who was famously busted for having written fiction as fact. The purpose of the exercise here is less to discuss the film than it is to dissect the mindset of our archetype liar: how he views himself; how he views others; and his techniques of subversion. The flip-side of this is the arc of realisation of those who must come to terms with the enormity of his lies and the monstrousness of his character.
This ingratiation is the crucial foundation for the temple of lies that comprises Glass's mind. It's not in the opening voice-over for no reason. In the VO, Glass dismisses other journalists (who presumably produce well-researched factual stories) as show-offs, braggarts and jerks. Says he, it's easy to 'stand out' amongst this crowd by being self-effacing, remembering birthdays, and bringing a coworker lunch. Honestly, why bust your arse when you need merely ingratiate yourself with those around you?
And it works obviously. When we first see him in the office he is everyone's sweetheart. But there is something not quite right with the picture. His self-effacement doesn't ring true. On two occasions his coworkers learn by accident that he is being wooed by other far more prestigious magazines. After each of these astounding revelations he issues the same demurral, 'It's probably nothing.' His coworkers rightly roll their eyes. Really, who would say such a thing?
Notice that his coworkers do not learn of this otherwise extraordinary news from Glass himself. On both occasions a receptionist pops in with a phone message and gives the game away. Glass's self-effacing comments are not so much a down-playing of his success as they are an attempt to stamp out a leak of intelligence. Fact is, he'd prefer that no one knew anything about him, successes included. And it's unsurprising that Glass is not excited by the news. It is confirmation of his own self-imagined greatness. Now that I think about it, self-effacement is always misrepresentation. The only question that counts is - is it selfless or selfish? No prizes for guessing which one Glass is.
Glass's attempt to quash discussion about himself is a pattern we'll see throughout the movie. Never does he share anything personal with anyone that isn't self-serving. All enquiries by coworkers into his personal life are resented. Of course a pathological liar would resent such inquiries. He is incapable of taking part in an honest and open discussion. Throughout this film not a single word trips from his lips that isn't self-serving or evasive. Not one.
Further to Glass's bullshit self-effacement is his extraordinary ability to notice and remember others' personal trivia. When a coworker at a party he gives, asks about a bottle of soft-drink with a label bearing her name on it, we learn that Glass did this on account of something she'd said years earlier. The coworker, at first perplexed, shakes her head and dismisses it. She ought not to have. This is clearly beyond the realm of normality and is actually a significant clue as to his pathology. It pays to wonder at such things.
Further, Glass's familiarity and friendliness are a one-way street. He mistrusts reciprocation. When a male coworker brings him a drink late at night he cops hostility from Glass. And sure enough, Glass quickly minimises the window on his computer. But might this also be a demonstration of projection? When Glass wanders into somebody's office it's part of an agenda, so might not this fellow have one too? Of course not - it's just Glass. His self-deprecation and ingratiation are all of a piece. Everything he does, bar none, is an act of self-serving, a means to an end. It's unsurprising he views reciprocation with suspicion. True selflessness is an alien concept to him.
The tangled web
Glass's ingratiation is a misrepresentation sure, but it's a good one. One might distrust it, but only by way of intuition. Ingratiation is intangible, a slippery thing. His magazine articles on the other hand were something else. They were studded with names and places. Oops. Honestly what was Glass thinking? That no one would follow up? May we view this as further testament to his hubris? Sure, why not.
Watch the marvellous scenes with Steve Zahn and Rosario Dawson as they track down lie after lie. It's the beginning of the end of our self-impressed liar. Glass's stories don't have a lazy error or two. They are completely and utterly bogus, entirely the product of his imagination. This film makes nothing of what these telling fabrications say about him. It's enough that they bedazzle people and are big hits. But make no mistake, they speak of the author. I haven't read the articles themselves. I've merely seen what the film shows of them. But even from this narrow sample a pattern can be discerned.
The juvenile wet-dream hero of 'Hack Heaven' is a self-impressed smart-arse who rightfully deserves the indulgent rewards lamely conceded to him by a bunch of suits he's outsmarted. And all to the applause of his peers. It's not accidental that Glass's relating of this story to his fellow writers in the boardroom mirrors the story itself. The telling of the story is the story. Next, Glass is his own hero in his story about the Tyson/Holyfield ear chomp. Apparently he rang up a mid-West radio station and posited himself as an 'expert on human-to-human biting'. He did no such thing of course. He merely imagined others as stupid and himself as clever enough to fool them. And then there's 'Spring Breakdown'. It's right-wing pigs are self-confessed directionless losers who want to humiliate fat chicks. Of course Glass paints his enemies falsely. And sure enough, he is smarter than they are. The stories are all of a piece. Others are stupid and Glass is clever. Those 'not him' deserve ridicule whilst he deserves glittering prizes and adulation.
Glass has a hair-trigger sense for others doubting him. Upon the first occasion of one of his stories being questioned, with his editor asking for his notes, the first words out of his mouth are, 'Did I do something wrong?'. It's an interesting response. Glass's coworkers, unaware of the breadth and depth of his falsity, assume it speaks of his good nature and complete lack of desire to wrong others. But it's precisely the opposite. Glass has no such nature or lack of desire. The question is actually designed to gain intelligence on how much is known by those who might oppose him, which is to say, everyone. It is the nature of Glass's us-and-them mindset that everyone is viewed as an enemy, even his allies. The question is also a nascent formulation of his chief weapon - false victimhood. Otherwise, of course Glass did something wrong. Wrong is all he's got.
It's worth noting that never does Glass stand up for himself. Never does he argue the rightness of what he did. He cannot. Nothing he does is right. Right behaviour is an absurdity to him, a thing to be taken advantage of. So, rather than stand up for himself, Glass gets others to do it for him. If this involves setting up factions, trashing harmony, and creating a poisonous office atmosphere, no problems. He would gladly smash all if he can walk away unscathed. It's the Samson option writ small. The Samson option is the most perfect expression of the most perfect self-obsession - if not me, none.
To this end, he alternates between his two character modes - sycophancy and character assassination. He has no honest opinions on others. If they believe him and are useful, he likes them. If they doubt him, or are inured to his false charm and praise him in a less than fulsome manner, he will declare they hate him and attempt to set others against them. This defines every relationship he has with every single person in this film.
The previously established ingratiation serves two purposes. Initially it is a means of establishing a variation of trustworthiness and credibility. Keep in mind that ingratiation has nothing to do with either of these things. But it achieves them nonetheless. The 'logic' is - 'He has brought me a coffee, therefore he is a good person, therefore I can trust him'. But it's a false logic. No such trust has been established, merely a misguided sympathy. It's this sympathy that later allows Glass to employ what is the only 'defensive' weapon available to a person who misrepresents everything - false victimhood. Effectively this is Glass's best and only weapon. Watch him perpetually ramp it up to ever more sickening degrees. Even at the ultimate point, with his editor perfectly aware that every single word Glass utters is a self-serving lie, Glass still attempts to gain sympathy for his plight as one who's no longer believed. God spare us! Can you see why I wanted to smash his teeth in? Anything to shut the fucker up. What a sorry excuse for a Buddhist I am, ha ha.
The arc of realisation
Several arcs take place in this movie. One is a rising arc of Glass's ever more desperate lying. Another is a falling arc of Glass's success. Satisfyingly they mirror each other. However both of these are driven by the key parabolic arc of those around Glass uncovering the truth. Zahn's exposé is the catalyst for this process but the chief protagonist is Sarsgaard as Glass's editor Chuck Lane. And what a battle he's in for!
Lane's initial problem is that he doesn't even know it's a battle. Glass knows and has already set the battlefield - not for Lane, sure, merely for whomever. But for Glass everyone is a potential 'whomever'. Indeed so unsuspecting is Lane that he initially goes into bat for Glass. Whenever he wishes to talk to Glass about problems with his articles he is considerate and grants him privacy. Well, you would wouldn't you? Sure enough Glass takes advantage of this to run to his duped allies and misrepresent what took place. Defending a fellow and granting him privacy are laudable actions until they are corrupted by a misanthropist like Glass.
Lane humanely gives Glass the benefit of the doubt because it is inconceivable to him that a human could be so utterly false. And this mindset is perhaps Glass's greatest weapon. This is the beauty of the Big Lie. So staggering is the totality of the falsehood that it cannot even be contemplated. Sure enough, in the office where Glass is able to define reality, Lane cannot make the leap. Unable to reconcile his suspicions with the impossibility of the Big Lie, Lane must shift his perspective. He physically takes Glass to the location of the alleged hacker conference. Here Glass's misrepresentations come crashing up against the undeniability of the real world. The metaphor is unmissable. Lane has made a journey to a place of realisation. Only in a new environment can Lane find fresh eyes to see what his own intuition/common sense had hitherto only suspected. Watching Sarsgaard's Lane shedding confusion and hardening into clarity, and Glass's concomitant collapse into ever more worthless lies, is a delight.
Lane seeing with eyes anew is a crucial step but it is not the end. Now he must lead others to his new understanding. The second beauty of the Big Lie is that it must be smashed over and over. The doubt of a single person diminishes its strength barely at all. As an angry, red-eyed Sevigny says, 'What you're telling me is impossible!'. Yep, that's how it works. The Big Lie parasitically attaches itself to one's understanding of the self. To conquer it one must deconstruct one's definition of human behaviour. How could this definition not include the self? Sevigny is not upset for no reason. Ponder Sevigny's reconsidering of 'her friend Glass'. It's not just her concept of 'Glass' that's at stake. It's also her concept of 'friend'. And, believe it or not , it's also her concept of 'her'. Sevigny must undergo a variation of nervous breakdown. Since it pivots around a single person it's a small one, sure, but small or large, smashing the Big Lie is an ugly business.
The movie finishes on an upbeat note. The applause that had been Glass's is now Lane's. We end with Lane and his lawyers on one side of a table with Glass and his, on the other. The Big Lie is shattered. Sympathy for the false victim is absent. Any falsehood will fall on the stoniest of barren ground. What does Glass have to say? Nothing. If Glass cannot lie, he cannot speak. He sits there mutely as his litany of lies is read out in detail. It's beautiful.
But is that all there is to it? Is it all over, with everyone going back to how they were before? Not so fast. Glass's pathological behaviour perpetually took advantage of what would otherwise be laudable - human fellow-feeling. Admirable things such as: sympathy for another's plight; the consideration of privacy; the granting of the benefit of the doubt, and a host of other worthy societal traits that perhaps we can call 'trust', have been trashed. Who can trust these feelings again?
What to do? Should trust be abandoned? Should we treat everyone as a potential motherfucker? Who wants to live in a society that operates on such a hateful non-basis? And how far would we be from going one step further and pre-empting the motherfuckers by adopting lying, cheating and stealing as our own SOP? If there are people like Glass out there perhaps the only answer is that we all become Glass?*
Bullshit. We must reject Glass. We must reject us-and-them as a defining mindset. The famous saying, 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me?', is crap. How about this - If you are for all, all will be for you. Or this - If you are only for yourself, who would be for you? Or, hell, even this - If you are only for yourself, who wouldn't be against you? It was this last one that bit our archetype in the arse.
The truth is there are only two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don't. Ha! Sure I get it, to utter this is to be tarred with it. It's idiotic. But it also embodies an inside-out truth. We must reject us-and-them and yet acknowledge it. For us, 'them' is to be those who define themselves as us-and-them. Ha ha ha, I love it - twisted irony runs rampant.
Can you dig it, or did I stop making sense? Really I can only speak for myself. I will trust. I will grant the benefit of the doubt. I will consider other's privacy. But I'm also aware. I'm aware that people exist who are hollow shells made of nothing but self-serving delusion. Says I, this awareness is enough. Glass actually gave plenty of clues as to what sort of person he was. But nobody knew what to look for. If you know, it's easy. The Big Lie only succeeds if you are unaware of how it works. Sure enough, the us-and-them tribe must never let this awareness take hold. In the face of this, Shattered Glass is an impossibly rare treasure. If you haven't seen it, do so. I've you've seen it already, watch it again. It's brilliant.
*Ha ha ha, the irony that Glass was anything but clear and was in fact perfectly opaque just struck me. Even his name is a misrepresentation. How perfect he is!