(On TV, October 2016) The real story of Stephen Glass is improbable to the point of being unbelievable: A young reporter for a well-respected publication, boldly manufacturing stories and passing them up as facts. Yet it happened, and Shattered Glass provides a welcome sense of outrage about it all. Did it portend a media ecosystem in which truth isn’t quite as important as click-through? As for the film itself, it’s a quiet, procedural drama that thankfully delves deep into the minutia of magazine reporting and fact-checking … if only to show how Glass consciously gamed the system and faked his sources to the point of creating fake web sites and enlisting confederates to answer the phone. The mid-nineties are slowly accumulating a nostalgic patina. Perhaps inevitably, the character of Stephen Glass himself is obnoxious to the point of being detestable, transparently trying to ingratiate himself while covering his track. It’s probably a compliment to say that I profoundly hated Hayden Christensen’s performance. The rest of the characters are far more morally admirable, and a few surprise appearances spice up the film: Peter Sarsgaard is likable as an ambitious editor who is forced to confront the monster he has enabled, while Steve Zahn, Hank Azaria and Rosario Dawson show up as secondary players. I’m not particularly fond of the ironic framing device of having Glass’s character speak to a high school class about the ethics of journalism, but the rest of the film has a good forward momentum, especially considering the sometimes-abstract subject nature. It helps that the film seems reasonably true to the facts. At a time when solid journalism is under fire, it’s heartening to see movies such as Shattered Glass and people such as writer/director Billy Ray grapple with some of its core tenets, and how good people have to take action to drive away the bad.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) It doesn’t reflect well on me, but I’ve long believed that Carey Mulligan is one of the most profoundly uninteresting thespian working at the moment. I don’t find her likable, attractive or impressive—most of her roles could have been played just as well by other actresses, and she doesn’t seem to have any innate distinction to her on-screen persona. But here comes An Education to make me question that long-held loathing: Mulligan is the clear protagonist of the movie, and she more than manages to be interesting, likable, attractive (a flattering haircut helps) and impressive as a young woman undergoing real-life schooling in 1960s England. Going from grade-A student to dropout under the influence of a conman, Mulligan portrays the withering innocence and mounting maturity of her character, and hold her own against capable actors such as Peter Sarsgaard (as the charming antagonist) and Alfred Molina (as a father who cares a lot). It’s not a complicated story, nor much of an original one, but it works well at what it tries to do, and ends up considerably more captivating than it looks on paper. An Education is a small surprise, not the least of them being Mulligan’s unexpectedly compelling performance.