Docu picked up by First Run Features should have a limited but enthusiastic audience. Pic offers a biographical look at four New York Jewish intellectuals who came out of City College of New York on the eve of World War II. Specialized festival and limited engagements are a sure bet for “Arguing the World,” with ultimate academic and TV/video play the likely outcome.
Film follows the lives of conservative political essayist Irving Kristol, moderate sociologist Nathan Glazer, social theorist Daniel Bell and the late socialist literary critic Irving Howe, from their poverty-stricken childhoods to their clashes in the political and cultural battles of the past 40 years. All came through CCNY, dubbed the poor man’s Harvard, where more education took place in cafeteria debates than in the classroom.
Once out of school they ended up in academia, at highbrow journals of opinion and — ultimately — influencing the movers and shakers of the country. Their overlapping and diverging paths provide a review of the political landscape of the last half-century. All were anti-Communists, for example, but Kristol eventually found himself as a conservative spokesman, while Howe assumed a leading role in the minuscule American socialist movement.
Their differing reactions to the campus unrest of the ’60s is instructive, with each in turn becoming disillusioned with the college radicals who presumed to be their successors. SDS leader (and subsequent California legislator) Tom Hayden comes in for repeated criticism not only from the more conservative thinkers, but from Howe as well.
Filmmaker Joseph Dorman provides a good context for the careers and issues that the film covers, letting each man have his say not only about his own life, but about the others as well. In a pithy closing statement, Howe notes that while he may disagree with Bell and Glazer, they have common roots. As for Kristol, Howe gives him the back of the hand, wishing him well in his life and failure in his political ambitions, noting that their common background no longer has any meaning.
Film is a fascinating documentation of an important chapter in the history of 20th century American intellectuals, but as such will have a limited audience.