Dir: Billy Ray. US. 2003. 99 mins.

An utterly absorbing dramatisation of contemporary true events, Shattered Glass is a welcome reminder of the serious-minded venture that was once more prevalent in mainstream American cinema. A modern morality tale that reflects the clash between ambition and integrity, it recalls the kind of 1970s films made by Sidney Lumet, Alan Pakula or Sydney Pollack. Strong performances and thought-provoking subject matter should generate solid box-office from the same audience that embraced The Insider. Less dazzling in technique or star power than Michael Mann's epic, it will require committed critical support and possible awards recognition to extend that impact to an international level.

Just like Frank Abagnale Jr in Catch Me If You Can, Walter Mitty journalist Stephen Glass led a charmed existence, fooling most of the people most of the time. As played by Hayden Christensen, he has the boyish manner of a young James Stewart. Modest, well-mannered and self-effacing, he was someone that everybody liked because he worked hard at earning their trust and affection. Just in his twenties, he became a regular writer at the esteemed periodical The New Republic, frequently described in the film as 'the in-flight magazine of Air Force One'. His articles were original and colourful, covering the kind of issues and personalities that you just couldn't make up, except that was exactly what he was doing. The great deception continued until one admired story attracted the suspicion of a rival journalist who challenged its accuracy and brought an abrupt end to Glass's glittering career.

Although recounting the story of just one man, Shattered Glass carries wider resonance in its portrait of a world where careerist opportunism counts for more than old-fashioned ethics. Even as Glass's web of lies is revealed to his colleagues, they refuse to accept his guilty and believe that his crimes are not as significant as they might appear. It is a fascinating counterbalance to the age of All The President's Men (1976) when journalists were heroes, integrity was everything and the quest to expose the truth could topple a President. Now, the journalist is as corrupt as the politician and the world seems a much more cynical place.

An impressive directorial debut from screenwriter Billy Ray, the film is cleverly structured and crisply told with a uniformly excellent cast that includes Chloe Sevigny as Glass's girlfriend and Hank Azaria as Michael Kelly, the journalist who would eventually perish during the recent war in Iraq. Hayden Christensen proves that there is life beyond the petulant doe-eyed Jedi warrior of the Star Wars franchise and gives the kind of rounded, engaging characterisation that represents the best work of his career to date.

Even more impressive is Peter Sarsgaard as New Republic editor Chuck Lane. His finely shaded performance beautifully conveys all the righteous anger and steely intelligence of a figure whose instinctive support for Glass slowly fades to contempt as he realises the full extent of the young man's deception and the implications for the reputation of the magazine. It is the kind of quietly compelling acting that dominates the screen and deserves a shot at a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

Prod co: Lions Gate
Int'l sales:
Lions Gate
Craig Baumgarten, Adam J Merims, Tove Christensen, Gaye Hirsch
Exec prods:
Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner, Michael Paseornek, Marc Butan, Tom Ortenberg
Ray, based on the article by Buzz Bissinger
Mandy Walker
Prod des:
Francois Seguin
Jeffrey Ford
Mychael Danna
Main cast:
Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Hank Azaria, Chloe Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey