Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Close-Up as Turning Point: Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass

Close-ups provide several functions in movies, not all of them in the service of an actor’s vanity. Some are purely sight-gags (insert Peter Sellers movie here), others are moments of dramatic revelation (Elaine discovering Benjamin's affair in The Graduate), while a few are devised to scare us shitless (one of the Gentlemen gliding by an open window in the episode “Hush” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Still other uses of the close-up are more subtle, almost imperceptively changing the direction of a story. About an hour into the 2005 film Shattered Glass, a close-up is used as a critical turning point, drawing attention to an actor’s face as though inviting the audience to see his character for the first time.

At first appearances, Shattered Glass is not a visual movie. The debut of writer-director Billy Ray, it’s a low-budget journadrama that borrows the naturalistic approach (if little else) from All the President's Men, a movie more interested in words than images. Yet it’s filled with great faces, among them Hayden Christensen (whose performance Owen Gleiberman vividly described as “all mind games and subliminal facial tics”), Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn, Rosario Dawson, Hank Azaria, and Peter Sarsgaard. It is Christensen's face--wide-eyed, innocuous, eager-to-please--that Ray at first focuses on so squarely that those unfamiliar with the story might be led to believe that his Stephen Glass is the hero of the movie. (My mother almost stopped watching during the early scenes in the high school classroom and at the Young Republicans convention, thinking that the movie was supposed to be "some dumb teenager thing.") Conversely, Sarsgaard's mug--beady-eyed, cynical, shifty--is that of a stock antagonist, his Chuck Lane seemingly possessed with the kind of ambition that leads him to become editor of The New Republic in what many of his colleagues believe to have been an underhanded manner. As Glass's boss, a serious journalist, and impervious to his underling's charms, Lane initially appears to function in a way similar to that of an archetypal police captain in a cop thriller--a purveyor of obstacles and nuisances. ("By the book, Glass! By the book!") For quite a while their faces are used to play on our assumptions, so that even the viewer who knows the movie's outcome can see, in dramatic terms, why Glass's schmoozy likability gave him the power to fabricate phony stories for so long and why many of Lane's difficulties in exposing him may have derived from his own standoffish personality.

Ray's direction is so unaffected that it wasn't until listening to his DVD commentary track (joined by the real Chuck Lane, and one of the most absorbing commentaries I've ever heard) that I discovered that he and cinematographer Mandy Walker had in fact devised a visual scheme, playing on my subconsious all along. Whereas the first-half of the movie is shot in a hand-held, shaky-camera style, the second-half employs more classical framing, with the camera held stationary on a tripod. This is to denote a shift in the narrative's point-of-view from Stephen Glass to Chuck Lane, to convey the idea (as Ray points out) that truth is slowly being restored.

It is the conference call scene in Lane's office that marks the turning point for this transition. Glass's most recently published scoop--a wild yarn about a computer hacker blackmailing a powerful software company--has been challenged by a duo of reporters (played by Zahn and Dawson, with Cas Anvar as their editor) at While an increasingly panicky Glass attempts to deflect, dodge and stonewall their questions, Lane sits quietly and observes. And it is at this point, for approximately twenty-five seconds, the camera begins to push slowly toward Sarsgaard's face.

Facetiously, Billy Ray has called this his "Godfather moment," but in actuality Sarsgaard's close-up serves a similar purpose to Pacino's. Chuck Lane knows that Glass's reputation and career--as well as his own--are on the line; and Sarsgaard reveals the inner turmoil of a man reluctant to take action but knows that he is running out of options. The unbroken take ends when Lane finally has enough and tersely tells Glass--who has been ostensibly searching for the phone number of one of his bogus sources--to "give them the number." These words, softly spoken, carry a devastating impact, so much that at the scene's conclusion Zahn's character says, sotto voce about Glass, "This guy's toast."

All the President’s Men depicted Woodstein's Post as a bastion of truth and the Nixonian atmosphere outside it as a world of underground parking garages and menacing shadows. Shattered Glass, while also set in D.C. (though actually filmed in Montreal) is about a more subtle, internal threat--perniciousness disguised as affability, a tricky notion to convey within a narrative framework. Restructured as “a Stephen Glass pitch” after the original "talking-heads" concept--with the ensemble recounting the story--didn't test well, the movie demands some patience from the unfamiliar viewer to realize that Glass is an Unreliable Narrator, and perhaps an even higher degree of tolerance from those in the know to overlook the stilted device of Glass speaking to a group of students in his old high school journalism class. (These scenes include a series of ultimately pointless shots of an anonymous pretty girl in the center row, who is given so many close-ups of her own that I began to wonder if she was going to ask Glass to the prom.)

Still, the movie holds together, thanks in no small part to Peter Sarsgaard's performance. As an actor in films like Garden State and Kinsey, I have found him maddeningly hard-to-peg. Yet he's the kind of guarded performer, who, in the right role, can powerfully convey a character's internal life. Billy Ray believes that the conference call scene is about Chuck Lane discovering that Stephen Glass isn't telling the truth, but by this point it is clear that behind his poker-face Lane already harbors suspicions. I think this scene--and specifically Sarsgaard's close-up, one of the few shots in a subdued movie that calls attention to itself--is about a person mustering the courage to act; and when Sarsgaard does, he takes us the rest of the way with him.


Norm Wilner said...

Terrific analysis, for a film that's only grown more interesting since its release.

Larry Aydlette said...

Nice piece. I love Shattered Glass, and especially this performance. However, I disagree with your assessment of All The President's Men as being more about words than images. From the striking keys on the wire machine that opens the film with a bolt to Redford's great closeup when he turns in terror outside the parking garage to the great scenes of movement throughout the newsroom, I think it's a film that wouldn't work without imagery, brilliantly shot by Gordon Willis, that is as strong as its plot. Yeah, I really love All The President's Men.

Craig said...

Norm--thank you. I agree that the movie, though still young, seems to hold up to repeated viewings.

Shamus--You're absolutely right about ATPM. If there's ever a blogathon on overhead shots, the one in the Library of Congress would be a definite candidate of mine. What I meant was that I see it as ultimately an actors' movie, not so much Hoffman and Redford as the supporting cast: Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, and a bunch of people in smaller roles who make a vivid impression. Some great faces there too.