Personally, I think that the best biopics are about famous people who had only one major historical event happen to them or because of them. When this happens, the film is more focused because it is not attempting to retell large swathes of a person’s whole life story. That is one reason that I like Shattered Glass (dir. Billy Ray, 2003) as much as I do. Glass explicitly focuses on the events of Stephen Glass’s plagiarism scandal while he was a journalist at The New Republic. Another reason is the wonderful performance given by the film’s leading man: loathed Hollywood actor Hayden Christensen.
Hayden Christensen gained instant notoriety when he was cast as Anakin Skywalker in the final two of George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel films. He would make his first appearance in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (dir. George Lucas, 2002) where his performance would be instantly derided by critics and the Star Wars fanbase. He would not fare much better with these groups when the next film Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (dir. George Lucas, 2005) would release three years later. However, in between these two films, he would be cast in Billy Ray’s 2003 feature where he would gain critical praise and be nominated for a Saturn Award.
This is partly due to the material given to Christensen in Shattered Glass being of higher quality, sure, but I would argue that his efforts are more successful here because the role of Stephen Glass plays more to his strengths as a performer. Even with an actor who, like Christensen, has been criticized for his limited range in his acting roles, there is always a reason that one rises to the ranks of being a professional actor. Wth Christensen, it is his earnestness. The role of Anakin Skywalker is a character filled with angst, lust, and uncertainty. Those films don’t allow Christensen to really play to his strengths and be earnest as he is supposed to be bubbling over with rage at all times. Because of this, he flounders throughout the entirety of the two films, unable to use the abilities he has to save him from drowning.
On the other hand, Ray weaponizes his earnestness. Stephen Glass is someone who is so desperate for everyone to like him, that he makes up outlandish, compelling stories so that readers and colleagues fawn over him. He is a character that’s quasi-catchphrase is “Are you mad at me?”, a sentiment that only becomes more and more beleaguered as it becomes increasingly apparent that, yes, someone is mad at him (that someone in this case would be Charles Lane, played by Peter Sarsgaard in one of his best performances as well). He is a puppy dog backed into a corner of his own creation, a toddler with his hand stuck in the cookie jar. He lies with such frailty of voice and demeanor that even as an audience member that is certain that he is not telling the truth, it is hard not to believe him at least a little.
The other element of Christensen’s acting toolkit that serves him well in Shattered Glass is actually his tendency to deliver his lines unemotionally. In most roles, like Anakin Skywalker for example, this would be a hindrance, but in the hands of Billy Ray and the behind-the-scenes crew of Shattered Glass, Christensen becomes the perfect media obligated sociopath. While his earnestness helps us empathize with him and believe him with little evidence, his monotone delivery and rigid demeanor always helps keep us at a distance. His focus becomes obvious. His obsession with attention and being liked is what drives every decision in his life.
This combination of attributes is what makes him such a great character. His sociopathic obsession is made to be understandable, or even relatable, due to how earnest Christensen just generally is as a performer. We don’t support what he is doing in order to achieve this universal recognition, but we feel sympathetic in the fact that he feels like he needs to do what he does. It is great work by Christensen to channel his strengths as an actor into Glass, but it also is incredible work by the casting department for thinking of Christensen and by Billy Ray who is able to provide an environment in which he can succeed.
If anything, Shattered Glass is a significant treatise that the onus of a bad performance should not primarily be laid at the feet of the actor. This is a tenet of film criticism, to point out which actor had a good performance and which ones were bad, but the quality of the performance is almost always blamed on or feted to the actor without regard to the role they were given or the tutelage they received. This singular praise is not just regarding actors and performances, though, as the criticism of all aspects of a film are usually chocked up to the department heads. This is logical thinking in a microscopic sense, but this kind of criticism neglects to acknowledge the collaborative effort of filmmaking. This is the equivalent of taking a losing basketball team and blaming every single failure on the players or the head coach, opposed to acknowledging the collective effort of the organization or the leadership of the front office.
Shattered Glass manages to avoid this criticism by giving its widely criticised lead actor a role tailored to his specialties. It gives audiences the opportunity to witness a glimpse of what Hayden Christensen’s career could have looked like if it was not scorched by the reception of his most prominent performances. It is interesting to ponder what this would have looked like, and it almost makes you wonder how many “bad” actors were affected by work that was not suited to them.
Shattered Glass is currently available to stream on Tubi.