Shattered Glass (2003), The Sound of Music (1965) and The General (1927)

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by Steven Greydanus | Source:
Shattered Glass (2003)
Quietly riveting, crisply intelligent, and ethically uncompromising, Shattered Glass tells the fact-based story of the spectacularly fraudulent journalistic career of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a hotshot writer for the New Republic (“the in-flight magazine on Air Force One”) during the 1990s.

With unsettling plausibility, first-time director Billy Ray depicts Glass’s uncanny ability to insinuate himself to his coworkers while ingeniously covering his tracks, mounting a deception on such a scale his peers and superiors can scarcely comprehend it even when he’s practically caught red-handed.

Christensen brings a nerdy charisma and inscrutable calculation to the role of Stephen Glass, betraying no trace of the comparative woodenness of his Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. But the film belongs to Peter Sarsgaard, who brilliantly portrays the magazine’s beleaguered new editor, distracted by office politics and reluctant to confront the popular, respected Glass.

Why did Glass do what he did? The film offers no explanation—a choice some have found unsatisfying. I disagree. Glass’s pattern of deceit is queasily persuasive; adding Catch Me If You Can psychologizing about his childhood or whatever would only diminish the film’s truthfulness, not enhance it. In the end, why Glass lied doesn’t really matter—only that he did.

Content advisory: Some obscene and profane language; a few crude references; a depiction of drug abuse.

The Sound of Music (1965)
Other than The Wizard of Oz, no Hollywood musical is as familiar, reassuring, and beloved of all ages as The Sound of Music. The loosely fact-based story has its earliest origins in the memoirs of Baroness Maria von Trapp, and was turned into a stage musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein in their final collaboration (and their only joint effort to rival their first collaboration, Oklahoma! ).

In bringing the musical to the screen, director Robert Wise made spectacular use of magnificent mountain landscapes and shooting locations in Germany and Austria. He also found in Julie Andrews the quintessential Maria, radiantly joyful, earnest and energetic, clear of diction and powerful in song. Her performance anchors the film: Had she betrayed any flicker of condescension or insincerity, the whole thing would have collapsed into treacle and camp. But cynics will search her face in vain: Her sincerity is absolute, and she sells the role and the film.

While the story depicts a religious postulant leaving the convent for marriage and family, both domestic and religious life are honored; God’s will and one’s own vocation, not one state versus another, is clearly the point. (Still, the musical does de-emphasize the role of religion in the original story. For example, the family’s real musical mentor, after Maria, was a boarder who was a Catholic priest!)

Content advisory: Nothing objectionable.

The General (1927)
Arguably the greatest of Buster Keaton’s silent comedies, The General begins with a single, brilliantly sustained premise and works it into an engaging story that combines edge-of-your-seat excitement, stunningly conceived stunts and sight gags, spectacular set pieces, touching sentiment, and a rousing finale.

Essentially a chase film, The General tells the Civil War–era tale of stoic young Confederate railroad engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton), whose precious train is stolen—and beloved Annabelle (Marion Mack) kidnapped—by Union spies. Commandeering another train to give chase, Gray winds up sallying deep into enemy territory, riding by the seat of his pants as he confronts obstacles and difficulties at every turn, often with only moments to act and split-second timing needed to avoid disaster.

Watching Keaton in action, one can easily believe he was one of Jackie Chan’s main inspirations. Yet in his deadpan understatement Keaton was perhaps unique among physical comedians. Perhaps misleadingly nicknamed the Great Stone Face, Keaton was in fact a subtle actor, but didn’t go for broad emotion or histrionics.

Part of The General’s strength is its historical persuasiveness; the look of the film was meant to evoke Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs, and though a comedy The General has an authentic period feel unmatched by dramatic Civil War films.

Content advisory: Wartime excitement and action; a sequence involving large-scale battlefield violence. Fine for kids.

Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register.

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