One of the great things about the Telluride Film Festival is the emphasis it places on documentary films, which annually account for a large chunk of its small slate. Perhaps this is because the great documentarians Ken Burns, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog are among the fest’s greatest champions — or perhaps not. Regardless, it has been a great pleasure of mine, over the four years that I have attended the fest, to catch as many of these docs as possible.
Unfortunately, not every one of them can be as great as previous Telluride selections such as Pina (2011), Stories We Tell (2012) and Tim’s Vermeer (2013). This year, one that I — and numerous others with whom I spoke at the fest — found a bit disappointing was The 50 Year Argument, which is ineligible for Oscar consideration because it screened on the BBC back in July.
Narrated by Michael Stuhlbarg, the film is structured around a celebration of the 50th anniversary of The New York Review of Books, at which a number of the periodical’s most celebrated writers — such as Joan Didion and Noam Chomsky — read from their past TNYRB work and pay homage to Robert B. Silvers, its editor since its inception (with Barbara Epstein until her death in 2006).
The HBO-bound project, which will premiere on cable on Sept. 29, was co-directed by Martin Scorsese (a self-professed obsessive fan of TNYRB and the ultimate storyteller when it comes to New York stories) and David Tedeschi (Scorsese’s film editor on previous TV films about George Harrison, Fran Lebowitz and Bob Dylan).
I, for one, think that The 50 Year Argument would have been infinitely more engaging if it focused on the life and motivations of Silvers, a remarkable man who is now 84 and continues to work tirelessly, rather than on minutiae about life at TNYRB and select stories that it has covered over the years. For a while the content and ideas in TNYRB have always made it worth reading, since it is Silvers who is behind that content and those ideas.
The 50 Year Argument is certainly not a bad film. It is just not a particularly inventive or revelatory one.