Liars can be the best documentary subjects. That might seem counter-intuitive. Watching a documentary is already a trust fall, so how much can we believe one if its story is partially delivered through a source we know to be untrustworthy? But a great documentary can use the ambiguity of a dishonest interviewee as a way to interrogate the very idea of the truth and of how people manipulate their own and others’ perceptions. Just look at last year’s The Act of Killing, which follows mass murderers denying that their deeds were monstrous. Or this year’s The Unknown Known (or any Errol Morris doc, really), which has two stories, the one Donald Rumsfeld tells us and the one the audience must suss out from the margins of what he says, since no one should think him truthful for one second.
Jayson Blair is a delicious subject for a documentary. Well-known for the infamous string of plagiarized or even faked stories he wrote for the New York Times between 2002 and 2003, the disgraced journalist’s lies run further than most know. As far back as his college days he was making things up for the publications he wrote for. He lied even when he was under no pressure to do so. He lied even when it would have been easier to do the honest legwork to write an article. In A Fragile Trust, Blair sits down for director Samantha Grant and her crew, and it’s a terrific opportunity to get inside his head, but instead his story is turned into the most run-of-the-mill doc possible.
The movie summarizes Blair’s career, beginning with the period when he interned at the Times through his rapid rise to prominence within the paper. Then comes the fall when his misdeeds were exposed, then the resultant scandal and controversy, as well as the damage control that the Times attempted. Several other journalists are interviewed in the film, including former Times editor Howell Raines (who resigned because of the scandal) and Blair’s colleague Lena Williams.
Blair himself is not exactly front and center but rather has his interviews weaved in between the others. The doc presents it as his side of the story, but it still seems plain that nothing he says should be taken at face value. The film brings up information that sometimes contradicts his claims. For instance, his recollection that he “cut corners” (that is, he copied quotes from other reporters) in one article because of time constraints doesn’t hold up under the evidence presented. It seems to agree with the assessment of another reporter, who describes Blair as a pathological liar.
Why, then, does the movie not dig deeper? It doesn’t even have to push against Blair’s claims. Often, all that is needed to lay bare the soul of a liar is to let him or her just keep talking. But Blair himself doesn’t show up enough for that. This movie is interested only in reciting the affair around him, which makes it beneficial as a reference tool for the future, but nothing else. The doc’s title refers to the fact that trust is often the only asset a journalist has, and it’s more endangered than ever in the current news environment. What goes on in the head of a Jayson Blair, or a Stephen Glass, or anyone else who misuses that trust? The movie thinks it addresses these ideas by having experts speculate on psychology, but it would be so much more unique and interesting to give the audience the magnifying glass and lay out Blair’s brain for them. A Fragile Trust is a frustrating waste of a good opportunity.