There is a lot of reading in The 50 Year Argument, a documentary about the venerable institution The New York Review of Books and its 50-year history of being engaged with the world. Notably, the documentary is the work of Martin Scorsese and his co-director David Tedeschi, and the two longtime filmmakers’ imprint on this doc is crucial: you can imagine it being tedious talking-head boredom in lesser hands (it is, at points, even in Scorsese’s hands — more like the 50 year nap, am I right?), but the directors skillfully pull off the trick that, by telling the story of a publication, they’re telling a story of the culture shifts of the last 50 years, in words and in actions.
The story of The New York Review of Books is inextricably linked with Robert Silvers, the 84-year-old editor of the publication who’s spent 50 years at the top of the masthead. A dapper man who seems like he’s always wearing a suit, we see vintage footage of his early days at the magazine spliced with current documentation of the office, a quiet space overflowing with books, a temple for ideas.
“Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves,” the narration begins, and we learn about the Review‘s relationship to human truth through a mixture of talking-head footage (Zoe Heller noting that “even if you begin with the nastiest word for vagina, Bob will take it on the chin”), footage from the magazine’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2013, and archival footage — which includes black-and-white video of James Baldwin wearing an ascot, smoking, and explaining the role of the black man in America, and Susan Sontag telling you that the camera has given us “an unearned sense of understanding things and an unearned relationship to the past.”
The effect can be a little sleepy when writers are sonorously reading excerpts of wonderful essays to you — but we wake up once we get to the ’70s, with footage of just how Norman Mailer pissed off feminists and fought with the likes of Dick Cavett and Susan Sontag in public intellectual forums. Throughout its life, the magazine has engaged with the issues of the day — civil rights, feminism, Vietnam and other wars — and it’s engaged with them by sending some of our best writers to interesting situations. It’s a rather simple formula, perhaps embodied by Joan Didion’s onscreen admitting that she wasn’t interested in American party politics when Silvers sent her to a Democratic convention.
She still wrote something wonderful — there’s been a lot of wonderful writing to come out of this magazine — and while The 50 Year Argument isn’t the definitive history of The New York Review of Books and what it all means, it’s a handsome and wide-ranging look at the American intellectual argument and how by plugging ourselves into the worlds of ideas and thoughts, we learn more about each other along the way.