Early on in The 50 Year Argument, writer Zoë Heller says that The New York Review of Books played a significant role for her in broadening an education that was formally lacking—a fulfillment, she implies, that the publication probably provided many of this film’s other interview subjects as well. There’s a telling element of defensiveness in Heller’s sentiment (delivered as a confession), and of internal exclusion, that haunts the documentary, which has been assembled to celebrate the NYRB’s 50th anniversary. There’s a wistful sense in the film of standing on the outside looking in, which is partially encouraged by the publication’s co-founder and editor, Robert Silvers, who’s quietly shaped thousands of legendary pieces by hundreds of legendary authors from the sidelines of his enviably chic (and bookishly well-stocked) high-rise office. Martin Scorsese and co-director David Tedeschi look upon Silvers and his writers with a reverence that’s similar to the children’s perception of the gangsters in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, or the rhapsodic awe the filmmaker extended the musicians in The Last Waltz and Shine a Light. In Scorsese’s purview, the writers of NYRB have reached a higher, freeing plane of expression; they’re shining their own figurative light.
And, for that, The 50 Year Argument is a fawning testimonial to the legacy of the cultural giant. 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. The filmmakers have clearly personalized their subjects, particularly Silvers, as testaments to a committed sense of curiosity with life, as heroic bearers of a cultural torch that might be blowing out in a country more hopelessly corrupt and corporatized than ever. That sentiment is tough to argue, as far as it goes, but one wishes for a bit of thorniness as counterweight, though the sentimentality also serves a constructive, gateway-drug purpose. As always, Scorsese’s an intensely emotional director, and, as in his Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, he shows an astonishing gift for imparting information with a hushed breathlessness that can capture a viewer’s imagination in a way that a staidly disengaged “academic” approach could never rival. You’ll almost certainly come out of this film with a reading list hundreds of entries long, an inspiration that speaks to the qualified hope that the directors extend toward America’s capacity to evolve and re-bear.
The film is structured as a clip show, but the editing has a subtle urgency: New interviews with a variety of NYRB alums, including Silvers, Heller, Joan Didion, Michael Chabon, Mary Beard, Michael Greenberg, have been skillfully woven together so as to comment on archive footage that’s been astutely selected to represent the cultural ripples that certain NYRB articles have left in their wake, or to suggest how certain free-floating cultural sediments inspired the writers to begin with. Footage of James Baldwin discussing the invention of the word “nigger” segues into a beautiful appreciation of his work by novelist Darryl Pinckney, which eventually yields an emotional crescendo that serves as the film’s moving climax. Spoken samples of Gore Vidal’s essay “Women’s Liberation,” which daringly likens Norman Mailer to Charles Manson, are folded into footage of Vidal and Mailer going toe to toe on an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, which soon leads to a sequence selected from Chris Hegedus and D.A Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall, detailing a portion of Mailer and Susan Sontag’s openly hostile battle of the sexes.
The careful blending of the footage sometimes achieves legitimately disconcerting effects, such as when spoken parts of Mary McCarthy’s account of the disturbing, euphemism-masked capitalist bravado of the Vietnam War are accompanied by children’s ads that cheekily, ghoulishly literalize military code words for weapons such as napalm. There are also blunt, perhaps inadvertent symbols in the present-day footage that subtly affirm the filmmakers’ obvious affection for the social discourse of the ’60s and ’70s, such as, most tellingly, a pointedly held shot of a book in Silvers’s office called Social Media Sucks, which complements a phone conversation where he discusses Digital Disconnect, a book on media control and manipulation. 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.