Martin Scorsese has made 12 documentaries throughout his career, training his lens on such varied subjects as the Vietnam War ("Street Scenes"), Italian cinema ("My Voyage to Italy") and Bob Dylan ("No Direction Home"). His latest, "The 50 Year Argument," spotlights The New York Review of Books. The documentary chronicles the influential publication's five-decade history and the avenue it took to become a forerunner in thought-provoking journalism. Currently screening at the ongoing New York Film Festival, and having premiered Monday night on HBO, "The 50 Year Argument" is constructed from fascinating footage of the Review's many prolific contributors but lacks, at times, a narrative thread that does justice to the magazine's weight.
The story of the Review's founding -- an opportunity Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein seized when the 1962-63 newspaper strike angered publishers who could no longer rely on book reviews in The New York Times and other large publications -- creates a fascinating history lesson for anyone interested in media, literature or successful business models. The parade of notable contributors who appear in the film includes James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Colm Tóibín and Michael Chabon, among others. Most engrossing is vintage footage of the ever-irritated Norman Mailer, seen in one clip arguing about feminism at a press conference and in another sparring with Gore Vidal about their work from the Review on "The Dick Cavett Show." "The 50 Year Argument" presents a rich portrait of the goings-on within the pages of the semi-monthly magazine, with only a glimpse of its impact in a larger context.
The documentary succeeds in exalting the publication while examining its effect on individual writers and on certain high-minded ideas. But it squanders an opportunity to trace the manner in which thoughts put forth in The New York Review of Books -- which houses long-form journalism about science, art and politics as much as it does book reviews -- has trickled into other aspects of society and into today's media culture. The Review is a curation of well-researched, well-reported, well-considered think-pieces. It accomplished that years before the entire Internet could count such a thing as part of its cultural modus operandi.
Scorsese and co-director David Tedeschi might find this notion too lowbrow for his documentary, which instead zeroes in on specific articles published in the magazine and specific writers' and editors' roles in shaping it. Lengthy portions of articles are read aloud. Sometimes, as with Baldwin's commentary about race or Didion's prescient (and, ultimately, accurate) suspicions about the guilt of the Central Park Five, the publication's effects outside of its own semi-celebrities become apparent. But, for the most part, there's a discussion missing from the documentary about why a critical mass of today's online writers treat themselves like academics, thrusting their (often also prognostic) ideas into the ether and slapping the now-complicated term "think-piece" on it. Instead, the film brings forth a series of vignettes devoted to specifics from the magazine's history. "The 50 Year Argument" is rarely uninteresting, save for a brief moment toward the end as the narration of article excerpts seems to grow longer and longer, but the movie doesn't prompt a conversation that extends past a reverence for the publication itself.
Watch "The 50 Year Argument' for its cast of colorful characters and the smart things they have to say, but it's up to you to draw a heftier inference about today's media culture as the offspring of 20th-century influences.