Shattered Glass, 104 mins, opening in cinemas nationwide on 12 February 2004

Watching Shattered Glass at a preview screening with a roomful of journalists was fascinating. They were rapt, because this film is based on the true story Steven Glass, a  journalist who was found to have been making up news stories he wrote for the prestigious Washington-based political journal  The New Republic.

Glass was young, talented, and well-thought of – until it was discovered that he had simply made up, in whole or in part, 27 of the 41 articles he wrote as a staff writer for The New Republic. He also fabricated material in stories he wrote freelance for Harper’s, Rolling Stone and George.

This engrossing story is well told by first-time director Billy Ray, who also wrote the screenplay (based on an article by Buzz Bissinger for the September 1998 issue of Vanity Fair). He uses a framing device in which Steven Glass addresses the new students in his old high school journalism class. It’s a terrific portrayal by Hayden Christiansen, a Canadian actor better known for playing Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002).

Director Ray, aided by Australian cinematographer Mandy Walker and editor Jeffrey Ford, switches back and forth in time, entering the mind of Stephen Glass and revealing gradually the vast extent of his deception. We squirm as Steven’s fictional exploits are gradually uncovered by some basic fact checking.

There is also an excellent supporting cast, with Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, Hank Azaria, Melanie Lynsky and Steve Zahn all appearing as fellow journalists.

The filmmakers walk a fine line here – after all, these are real people being portrayed, and most of them are still around. Making a film about another writer’s inaccuracies must be extremely difficult.  Make a mistake, and you are hoist by your own petard. In addition, the filmmakers hint at – but do not explore – pressures that seem to have been put on Steven by his family. Perhaps that was too close to the bone.

The fact that it was so easy for Glass to deceive even experienced editors does not say much for the work practices of the time. For example, when facts could not easily be checked by reference to a primary or authoritative reference source, editors were content to rely on journalists’ notes. But as the Glass case revealed, that can be dangerous.

The reason Glass managed to get away with so much for so long has a lot to do with office culture and politics. Glass ingratiates himself with his co-workers, flattering them, remembering their birthdays and other personal details. He is always humble, even when astounding his fellow journalists with the amazing tales he spins. The filmmakers show us how we can be only too willing to let ourselves be deceived, simply because we like a person and don’t want to think the worst of them.

We saw a similar phenomenon recently in the excellent Catch Me if You Can (Spielberg, 2002), the story of real life con man Frank Abagnale. And a few years earlier there was Rogue Trader (James Dearden, 1999), the story of Nick Leeson and the Baring Brothers scandal.  And even since Steven Glass came a cropper in 1998, there has been a similar journalism scandal with the case of Jayson Blair, a reporter for The New York Times. In May 2003 he was found to have invented or plagiarised portions of over 30 articles in that venerable newspaper of record. It seems dubious material can still slip through the editorial net.

As lawyers, we know only too well the dangers  of not checking facts. And we know that sometimes taking people at their word can be perilous in the extreme. It seems Steven Glass has learned by bitter experience. He is now a lawyer.