Over the span of a half-century, The New York Review of Books has remained a viable enterprise of American society and political affairs, steadfast criticism, and as evoked by its title, analysis of popular literature. The publication’s success, which has evaded the influence of corporatization that has befallen other magazines, can be found in the strength of its roster of writers and their stories. An exposé on the stories behind these stories was inevitable, and filmmakers Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi have done so here – encapsulating the periodical in rich, verbose detail and supporting the idea of print journalism as an invaluable resource in contemporary culture.
While Scorsese is mainly thought of for his contributions to narrative cinema, he has proven himself a notable documentarian of artistic endeavors, most notably in his music-driven works: No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) and George Harrison: Living In The Material World (2011). With The 50 Year Argument, his topic is situated in mid-20th century New York – a focus well represented across his filmography, further accentuated by the decision to hone in on political entanglement and conflict (not to mention a score driven by classic jazz). Across the course of ninety minutes, Scorsese delves into the publication’s history, foregoing a linear chronicle for a varied, full-bodied rendering of the past.
The early days of the organization are illustrated through the perspective of founding editor Robert Silvers, who managed operations alongside the late Barbara Epstein from the beginning and who is still active in the present day. The emphasis is placed on the paper’s most significant articles and moments in its history, such as Susan Sontag’s essay on Leni Riefenstahl and Gore Vidal arguing with Norman Mailer over a long-standing feud on television. These events are all conferred through a series of talking head style interviews, include Michael Chabon, Joan Didion, and Derek Walcott, among others, discussing how the Review greatly impacted their own careers.
The 50 Year Argument makes for a fascinating venture into a long-standing literary establishment, surveying the role of journalism across recent history and where it stands today. As a testament to the longevity of The New York Review of Books, it is a film composed with loving detail for the individuals who utilized the written form as a means to inspire thought and action.
The 50 Year Argument opens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, starting January 23rd.