With The New York Review of Books: A 50 Year Argument, co-directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi have created a documentary akin to leafing through the pages of a New York Review of Books anniversary issue, scrolling through decades of stories, and occasionally stopping at significant pieces to scrutinize them in more detail. A history of the magazine – founded by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein in 1963, partly in answer to that year’s New York printers’ strike, and partly because other book reviews at the time were thought “lobotomized” – as well as a document of the world history covered in those pages over the years, The 50 Year Argument masks its density and sprawling gaze with a sprightliness not usually expected of this kind of documentary.
What could have been a dry, niche feature-length doc is made remarkably accessible and constantly stimulating by the two directors. It zips through American history before moving onto global concerns, expanding its wheelhouse just as the magazine broadened in its socio-political scope over its years. The title, The 50 Year Argument, is a reference to how the now half-century-old publication has so frequently exposed stories less reported and made challenges to the mainstream during its time.
Scorsese and Tedeschi cast their eyes over the fall of communism, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and, of course, the books that shaped, and were shaped by, the changing cultural landscape of the time. The 50 Year Argument is a documentary of ideas; reflecting the review, it presents distinct individual voices – from the archives, the caustic likes of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal clash over totally opposing views – with differing opinions making up what’s considered to be an essential continuous argument.
With Scorsese half at the helm – Tedeschi, his sometime documentary editor, composing the other half – there’s obvious influence felt from this indomitable force of cinema. The 50 Year Argument deftly imparts reams of information with clarity, only minus the rapid, dizzying pace we might also expect from a Scorsese film. The film has a sharp look, too, with the camera always focused on capturing the essential details rather than making constant attempts at aesthetic artfulness.
According to Scorsese himself – speaking in a live Q&A via Skype – there were still additions being made to the film up until the last minute, which could account for the relative flabbiness in the closing minutes. The rest of the film is paced almost perfectly, a sweeping glance at an America lost and won during the magazine’s existence. Arguably the biggest drawback to the experience is that it isn’t longer – Scorsese and Tedeschi incite a hunger for the buffet of knowledge on offer, and two hours can’t feel like enough for something so intellectually moreish.
Still, the film remains bursting – but crucially never overflowing – until the end credits, where we watch the now 84-year-old editor Robert Silvers continue his work in the Review office as the titles roll, the stories still coming and the work still necessary. Scorsese remarked during the Q&A that his aim with The New York Review of Books: A 50 Year Argument was merely to encourage the film’s viewers to read the Review. Maybe he’s being modest about his goals, maybe not, but he’s definitely underselling the result: not only do he and Tedeschi champion this defiantly radical publication, but they together successfully argue the social, political and cultural importance of a magazine that was born almost on a whim.