'The 50 Year Argument': Sheffield Review

The 50 Year Argument Still - H 2014
HBO Documentary Films
Scorsese salutes a fellow New York cultural landmark.

Martin Scorsese co-directs this handsome and stimulating documentary celebrating five decades of the New York Review of Books.

Freewheeling through half a century of American literary and cultural life with the silky elegance of a seasoned jazz player, Martin Scorsese teamed up with his sometime editor David Tedeschi to co-direct this rich documentary about The New York Review of Books. Previewed in fragmentary and untitled form at the Berlin Film Festival in February, The 50 Year Argument had its full world premier at the Sheffield Doc/Fest this weekend. In the U.K. it is scheduled to screen on BBC television's highbrow arts slot Arena in late June. In the U.S., further festival sightings are possible before the film debuts on HBO, most likely in September or October.

Celebrated around the world for its superlative long-form essays on literary, cultural and political matters, the NYRB was an accident of history and circumstance. It was first conceived during a dinner party between poet Robert Lowell, his writer wife Elizabeth Hardwick and their neighbors Barbara and Jason Epstein. Seizing a unique window of opportunity, they launched the paper in 1963 during a three-month newspaper strike in New York. Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers went on to edit the paper together for over 40 years, until her death from cancer in 2006.

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Anchored by the old-world charm of Silvers, still at the helm and still a formidable intellectual force at 84, The 50 Year Argument features a stellar intellectual cast from the world of letters including Joan Didion, Derek Walcott, Michael Chabon, Noam Chomsky, Mary Beard and Colm Toibin. Among the notable former contributors who appear in archive clips are Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Vaclav Havel, Isiah Berlin and James Baldwin, who provides one of the most exquisitely witty two-minute deconstructions of racist terminology ever caught on camera.

Tedeschi previously worked as an editor on several Scorsese projects, including his acclaimed biodocs of George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Though they have no classic rock anthems to propel the action here, the duo still give their latest collaboration a musical rhythm, resisting a straight chronological narrative for a more freeform collage approach.

The 50 Year Argument slides fluidly between handsomely shot contemporary interviews and well-curated retro footage, personal anecdote and frontline reportage, from Vietnam to Bosnia to Iraq. Fragments of poems and articles published in the NYRB unfurl across the screen in giant font. Boardwalk Empire regular Michael Stuhlbarg reads the spare voiceover while a vintage jazz soundtrack invokes a lost golden age of uptown Manhattan sophistication.

Despite its title, there is little contentious in The 50 Year Argument. Most of the fights recorded here occurred elsewhere, when titanic ego clashes between heavy-hitters like Mailer, Vidal and Sontag spilled over from the paper's pages into public shouting matches on big and small screen. More recently, the NYRB led the way in challenging mainstream media orthodoxy on the War on Terror, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.

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The NYRB has always been chiefly a mouthpiece for the East Coast liberal-left intelligentsia, but Scorsese and Tedeschi avoid probing its political character beyond saluting a broad interest in human rights. Made with the official endorsement of Silvers and his publisher Rea Hederman, The 50 Year Argument is a shamelessly partisan advert for the paper. It also feels designed to flatter its target audience of readers and potential readers, which includes people like me.

Half a century of high-quality journalism is worth celebrating, of course. But even so, a few dissenting voices among the cheerleaders might have added a little necessary grit. Tom Wolfe, for example, called the paper "the chief theoretical organ of radical chic" while others mockingly branded it "The New York Review of Each Other's Books". A vague hint of that self-satisfied smugness occasionally creeps into The 50 Year Argument. A serious critic might note the irony of a film that champions serious criticism without containing any serious criticism itself.

That said, it is impossible to dislike a documentary with such rich subject matter and such a stellar cast of cultural heavyweights, which both solicits and rewards curiosity from its audience. The 50 Year Argument is not a major Scorsese work. But it is a warm, engaging, celebratory love letter from one New York institution to another.

Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, BBC Arena, WOWOW
Cast: Robert Silvers, Joan Didion, Noam Chomsky, Derek Walcott, Colm Toibin
Directors : Martin Scorsese, David Tedeschi
Producers: Margaret Bodde, Martin Scorsese, David Tedeschi    
Cinematographers: Ellen Kuras, Lisa Rinzler
Editors: Paul Marchand, Michael J. Palmer    
Sales company: Cinephil
No rating, 115 minutes