Telling Lies in America

Bad faith is back: a pair of Clinton-era allegories evoke free-floating late-'90s hypocrisy

Is it too early to revisit the late-'90s mentalité?

Last week brought Elephant, the third of three recent Columbine movies; this week, The Human Stain and Shattered Glass evoke the bad faith and free-floating hypocrisy of Bill Clinton's second term.

The former, directed by Robert Benton from Nicholas Meyer's dutiful reduction of Philip Roth's fierce novel, is a cautionary tale—mainly by example. The nerviest prestige picture of the season is fatally undone by a Clintonian mixture of misplaced care and bizarre expediency. The least (and also the most) one can say for this curious Miramax package is that it acknowledges the novel's temporal complexity and thematic ambition.

Busted! Christensen and Sarsgaard
photo: Lions Gate Films
Busted! Christensen and Sarsgaard

Details

The Human Stain
Directed by Robert Benton
Miramax, opens October 31

Shattered Glass
Directed by Billy Ray
Lions Gate, opens October 31

Roth's protagonist, Coleman Silk, is a once distinguished 71-year-old classics professor driven from his job in an absurd instance of campus political correctness; in his enforced leisure, he enjoys a Viagra-fueled affair with Faunia Farley, an illiterate custodial worker half his age. An irascible meditation on race, class, and sex in America, the novel resounds with cant, and not only because it plays out mainly during the 1998 Summer of Monica. Both Coleman and Faunia have guilty secrets. Coleman, as Roth reveals a quarter of the way into his story, has been passing as white—indeed, passing as Jewish—for most of his adult life. (See sidebar.)

Coleman may be a paradigm of Clintonian self-invention, a white Negro no less, but Anthony Hopkins is surreally miscast—and demonstrates appropriate contempt with the laziest performance of an increasingly tired (and tiresome) career. More apt to dolly than cut, Benton allows the movie to be pulled along by Hopkins's desultory bluster; as Faunia's ex-husband, Ed Harris—in crazy-making trick eyeglasses—is nearly as awful. By contrast, Gary Sinise, as narrator Nathan Zuckerman, is too bland and too young. (Could he really be more bankable than such obvious Roth doppelgängers as George Segal, Elliott Gould, and Richard Benjamin?)

Perhaps under the misapprehension that, as the biggest star, she must be playing the central character, Nicole Kidman uses the unhappy Faunia to relentlessly raise the decibel level. Only a desire to indulge Kidman can explain why Benton permitted one of the novel's least playable scenes—Faunia's extended conversation with a crow. Or did the director realize that, in order to work on the screen, the material would have to be pushed beyond old-fashioned naturalism?

Playing the young Coleman with the requisite intelligence and ambiguity, Wentworth Miller contributes the sole viable characterization—so much so that, for those unfamiliar with the book, the flashbacks in which he appears might be set in an alternate universe. The novel has a time-traveling investigative structure worthy of the young Orson Welles and tragic themes that tunnel deep into the national past. But it's only during the conventional, heart-wringing scenes between young Coleman and his family that the movie ever comes to life.

Clinton is both presiding icon and structuring absence in Shattered Glass. A true tale of deception and betrayal at The New Republic, Billy Ray's debut feature revisits the case of Stephen Glass, the promising young writer who, in the late '90s, made a name for himself with wildly improbable and most unwonkish yarns about Young Republican bacchanals and teenage hackers.

"Journalism is the art of capturing behavior," Glass (Hayden Christensen) announces in the hotshot visit to his high school journalism teacher's class that serves as an unfortunate framing device. Whether or not that statement is true, representing behavior is the essence of docudrama, and Christensen plays Glass as a manipulative twerp—there's no excitement to his subterfuge. He may be protected by two female co-workers (Chloë Sevigny and Melanie Lynskey), but his roguish charm is nowhere apparent; Christensen leaves a less compelling human stain than Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can or even the Matchstick Men, let alone you know who.

Glass's enabler, the late Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria), is portrayed as a tough but tender, much beloved two-fisted editor. Missing is Kelly's near pathological loathing of Clinton, fed by Glass with bogus pieces on imaginary anti-Clinton committees, Monica Lewinsky brand condoms, and—published in George—a scurrilous hatchet job on Clinton crony Vernon Jordan. Although the movie is dedicated to Kelly's memory, the real hero is his successor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), who, terminally depressed, looks askance—literally—at Glass's copy and sighs, "It's weird." Lane served as a paid consultant to the movie and is understandably more sympathetic on-screen than his equivalent in the roman à clef for which Glass received a six-figure advance. Still, the Sarsgaard slow burn is only marginally more compelling than the Christensen simper; like its subject, the movie is self-important yet insipid.

In his self-invention, duplicity, and disgrace, Glass was inevitably diagnosed as a Clinton symptom—particularly as his lies were exposed in the spring of '98. Immersed in personality and what Roth called "America's oldest communal passion," self-righteous sanctimony, Shattered Glass begs a larger question: What sort of culture elevates Glass for his entertainment value, punishes him for being too entertaining, rewards his notoriety, and then resurrects him again as a moral object lesson?


Related Article:
"Miramax nudges critics to reveal Coleman Silk's 'Secret'" by J. Hoberman

 
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