David Tedeschi, who’s edited Martin Scorsese’s documentaries Shine a Light (2008), Public Speaking (2010) and George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011), makes his… co-directorial review with The 50 Year Argument. Marking half a century of the New York Review of Books, the doc sneak-peeked as a work-in-progress at the Berlinale in February and saw its official world premiere at the Sheffield Doc/Fest. Having popped up at festivals such as Telluride and Toronto, it now comes home to the New York Film Festival, which’ll be slipping three screenings in before Monday night’s premiere on HBO.
“It is a sober, highly subjective, unashamedly hagiographic history of a very special publication that is held dear not only by New Yorkers but to those tuned in to the great ideological debates and culture and political wars of our and prior times, a bastion of independent opinion segregated from boards and large advertisers,” writes Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker. “The film centers on co-founder and editor Robert Silvers, who at the age of 84 seems to live in some ways in another era, one pre-electronic, more writerly, and text-friendly. Yes, books are reviewed, but that is not the primary concern. Heavyweights argued (Mailer, Sontag, Vidal) and still do. Alternatives and unpopular points-of-view are explored (Tahrir Square, Iraq). Silvers can sniff out the zeitgeist (Michael Greenberg on Occupy Wall Street). Philip Roth writes and is reviewed; same goes for Joyce Carol Oates and Colm Tobin, ad infinitum. Art exhibitions from all over the world and the occasional film are reviewed. This is an intellectual mélange with a progressive, questioning agenda. Like Woody Allen with top actors, Silvers gets the very best writers because he can.”
“Any pretense that the film will be objective or challenging flies out the window within minutes, and that’s the irony that viewers will have to accept: that Scorsese and Tedeschi have fashioned an uncritical celebration of criticism.” Chuck Bowen at Slant: “The 50 Year Argument resembles a reader-centric Behind the Music only on the surface; underneath, Scorsese and Tedeschi have fashioned an American cultural hall of mirrors that speaks of the chaotic exhilaration of fostering discourse that might initiate real social engagement. If that’s naïve, screw it: This pop culture could use more of Scorsese’s naïveté.”
Brian Tallerico for RogerEbert.com: “Scorsese and Tedeschi take a very purposefully episodic approach, spending a few minutes on key events from the history of the paper such as Gore Vidal’s battle with Norman Mailer or the way Susan Sontag defeated the potential revisionism of Leni Riefenstahl. It has a remarkable cumulative power, not unlike reading the Review itself.”
“Probably the biggest challenge here is that, although the New York Review of Books has published controversial and influential articles over its five decades, there’s no real cinematic action in a journal of ideas,” notes Don Steinberg in the Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Silvers said several other documentary filmmakers had been in touch, but he felt none had a real sense of the publication. ‘Someone said to me “Why don’t you try Marty Scorsese? He knows about the Review.” … Mr. Scorsese says he started picking up the Review when it first came out in 1963. ‘I was 20 or 21. Reading was not a habit in my household. It was something I had to develop myself,’ he says. ‘It didn’t look intimidating intellectually—until I opened it, of course.'”
At the AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky gives the film (“if it could be called that”) a D+. “It has noble intentions, but seems aimed more at subscribers than viewers; it’s never a good sign when a movie’s most visually and dramatically compelling moment is a three-minute clip from The Dick Cavett Show.”
“Auteurists will be hard-pressed to find much in the visual stylization that betrays Scorsese’s participation,” grants Chris Willman at the Playlist, “but God bless him for lending his imprimatur and passion so we could spend an hour and a half pretending that men and women of American letters still matter in mainstream culture the way they did in the ‘60s. Matter, schmatter: Maybe it really is the insular community of inveterate readers that’s significant here. As one interviewee says, speaking about the need for literary types to not spend all their time looking at a page or screen, the New York Review represent ‘community, in a realm that depends on silence.'”
Updates, 9/30: The 50 Year Argument “suggests a nonfiction companion piece to the angry, audacious The Wolf of Wall Street,” suggests Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot. Early on, Michael Greenberg reads from his article on Occupy Wall Street, “[capturing] that inchoate rage against Wall Street titans run amok; Scorsese’s previous film rendered Jordan Belfort as their spiritual progenitor, the starting point of a systematized move towards the valuation of money over culture and knowledge.” Further in, there’s an “odd moment of tone-deafness: jumping from the early scene in Zuccotti Park to a swank cocktail reception celebrating the magazine’s fifty-year anniversary happens unironically despite revealing the disparity between the unwashed 99% and the well-paid literati giving voice to them. On the whole the film misses some of the verve and aesthetic boldness of Scorsese’s other documentaries… Even though the film is largely anodyne in its presentation, its case for the continuing validity of a project like New York Review of Books is intellectually sound, more widely ranging than one would have any reason to expect, and politically engaged without being didactic. Not unlike its subject.”
At Flavorwire, Elisabeth Donnelly notes that “by telling the story of a publication, [Scorsese and Tedeschi are] telling a story of the culture shifts of the last 50 years, in words and in actions.”
Updates, 10/1: “The challenge of making a documentary about the static, not very visual process of putting out a literary magazine is met, mostly, by moving quickly and fluidly (the editors were Paul Marchand and Michael J. Palmer) and by using archival footage of wars, riots and rallies whenever possible,” writes Mike Hale in the New York Times.
“This range of techniques is necessary to keep the film engaging and, with the exception of a slight loss of momentum in the middle, an editing success,” agrees Julia Friedman at Hyperallergic. “The 50 Year Argument’s biggest strength, however, is portraying the magazine as an integral part of the zeitgeist—if not its progenitor—and demonstrating the way in which specific authors interacted with seminal cultural moments.”
Update, 10/2: For the Atlantic, Joe Fassler talks with Silvers about “his vision for the paper, the importance of editorial freedom, and the central place of book reviews within our broader culture of ideas.”