Were We Wrong About Hayden Christensen?

What could possibly go wrong?

You’re a hot young actor who has been picked over every other hot young actor in Hollywood to be the human face of the greatest conflicted villain in all of cinema. For Hayden Christensen, it was the very appearance in the Star Wars prequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, that took his entire career down the wrong path. His post-Star Wars career has been categorized by projects that are either duds, like Doug Liman’s failed franchise starter Jumper, or being sentenced to the straight to VOD jail in which only Bruce Willis can come and go as he pleases. Yet there is a diamond in the rough of the erstwhile Anakin’s filmography that begs the question, were we wrong about Hayden Christensen? Is there a great actor in there somewhere?

The film in question is the 2003 journalism drama, Shattered Glass, in which Christensen plays the real-life Steven Glass, a young hotshot writer for the American political magazine, The New Republic, who falsified most of his articles for the publication, and how his life comes undone when he is eventually found out. For years, I’ve been hearing that this is the performance that proves that Christensen’s leading man work is not the best display of his talents – that, despite his iconically dreadful performance in Star Wars, he deserves actual credit as an actor, too.

But does it? Glass is a gift of a character for any actor, and Christensen sinks his teeth into a man that makes you second guess every piece of information he is giving you. Like an actor, Glass is a born liar who tailors his performance as the kid protegee/lovable goof/functioning human being to whatever he thinks his audience will respond to.

Christensen is brilliant at bringing this sham of a person to life, genuinely: his awkwardness, his earnestness, it all comes together in a way that fits this character down to a tee. Clearly trying to prove to everyone who hated him as Anakin that he can act outside of a Galaxy Far, Far Away. It’s not exactly a performance I would call an Oscar-snub or anything, but there’s depth here, a canny bit of casting that allows Christensen’s on-screen presence to match the character he’s playing for a change. It’s hard not to come at this performance with a critical eye, given what Christensen is most known for, and even with a harder gaze than most actors in this role would get, he stands up. It feels like an early performance from a tremendous actor, still in practice – like in twenty years time, people would look back at this as he won his Oscar and see the scrappy beginnings of someone learning their craft.

One great performance doesn’t make a career, though, and what is a highlight of a limited actor’s career would be a footnote in another. While Shattered Glass is a great film with a great lead performance, it is boosted by a supporting cast of truly talented performers like Peter Saarsgarrd, Chloe Sevigny, Hank Azaria, and Melanie Lynskey, a brilliant stranger-than-fiction story, and assured direction from Billy Ray.

So, where we wrong about Hayden Christensen? I would have to say no. Shattered Glass is a shared achievement, and a good example of how discourse around a piece of art can elevated one aspect of the work while erasing the rest. In the same manner, and even though he became the Jar Jar effigy of hate, Christensen isn’t the main reason the prequels failed. And, in another life, a non-Anakin one, he might have been able to build on Shattered Glass to turn out a genuinely impressive acting career. There is a great actor in there somewhere – but Anakin and the prequel trilogy are too heavy a weight to ever throw off his shoulders.

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By Kevin Boyle

(header image via Slant Magazine)

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