At the halfway mark of Ahead of Time, a young student asks the early 20th-century journalist and feminist demi-icon Ruth Gruber for career advice at a book signing. “Read, read, read,” the now-crinkly Gruber says. “Read everything you can get your hands on. Every paper…” And then, as almost an afterthought, she adds a similar mantra for the supposed creative product of maintaining this perpetually informed state of mind: “Write, write, write.”
Within this stimuli-favoring hierarchy lies the essence of reportage. Events are not “inspiration” to petroleum ink-blooded scribes like Gruber: They’re moments that supersede the individual, and that must be rendered on the page as a guide to and an exhibit of evidence for the nature of universal experience. That having been said, Gruber certainly wasn’t above proto-Didionisms: Her first serialized column for the New York Herald Tribune was an ongoing portrait of womanhood’s weather-beaten survival under fascist states that bore the sneering headline I Went to the Soviet Arctic (as she was the first foreign correspondent to tread upon “red” snow, the essays might as well have been subtitled “And You Didn’t”). Despite the colorful apologia that the bio-documentary Ahead of Time attempts for Gruber’s cheerfully brash personality, however, the film can’t quite consolidate the writer’s effrontery-prone public persona with the seemingly artless, Ernie Pyle-prosaicness of her work. Among the damnable paucity of excerpts provided, only a dubiously colloquial simile about a destroyed ship resembling “a matchbox splintered by a nutcracker” lingers in memory—an oddly urban choice of words, indeed, for a woman who was an English-lit PhD candidate at age 20.
As captured in new interviews, Gruber’s on-screen voice is proudly, intrepidly thick, teaming with traces of the traditions, whims, and obsessions that have steered her globetrotting career for 70 years. A curvy, elegant, Jewish teen in 1920s New York, she possessed a love of Virginia Woolf’s distaff defenses and an unspeakably valuable penchant for German culture and language (as a polyglottal exchange student in Cologne, she observed the rise of Hitler firsthand). Director Bob Richman moves us through these formative years to her key assignments as a crackerjack freelancer and often uncooperative assistant to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes in chronological order, but the glut of testimonial tangents and the curious specificity of Gruber’s remembrance (a true reporter, her recollections of first impressions are meticulously visceral) offers the cadence of a free-associative memoir—if not the daring logical abstraction. Richman punctuates these stories with clever, digitally enhanced chapter headings that give the sense of a raggedy, hand-scrawled scrapbook, even if his eye for talking-head cleanliness and spritely archival interpolation betrays the project’s undeniable professionalism (unsurprisingly, Richman has directed the photography of award-winning documentaries such as The September Issue and An Inconvenient Truth).
Richman’s biography is competent, if ultimately premorse, ending soon after the post-WWII exodus of Jews to Palestine—which even Gruber described as an immigration to a waiting tragedy—and glossing over Gruber’s subsequent marriage and far less femininely aggressive column “Diary of an American Housewife.” But most telling is its climax, featuring a series of plaintive photographs that Gruber snapped while aiding the transcontinental relocation of 1,000 Nazi camp refugees to a compound in Oswego, New York. Stark, solemn, and cagily picturesque, the shadowy faces she caught expressing equal parts anguish, relief, and numbness might stand as her crucial cultural achievement—a fact that, when considered, notably revises Gruber’s importance as a writer and somewhat condescendingly asserts her significance as a professional witness.
Whether this is Richman’s doing or an inherent weakness in Gruber’s bibliography is unclear, though the lack of emphasis on her verbiage throughout the film is suspiciously editorial; unlike most appreciations of senescent artists and thinkers, Ahead of Time hardly inspires one to scour Amazon for the subject’s output. So while the documentary is an appropriately discursive, and casually entertaining, testament to Gruber’s plucky presence and passionate international awareness, it’s eventually hindered by the limitations of her interpreted legacy: As a recorder of the socio-politically extraordinary, the ontological potency of what she saw, heard, and felt has overshadowed whatever she might have been thinking. Inadvertently appropriating the famous, and likely fraudulent, Chinese insult, Ahead of Time appears to deem the act of existing as a determined woman in an illustrious era Ruth Gruber’s most noteworthy accomplishment.