The history of the New York Review of Books is incisively celebrated and distilled by co-directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi in “The 50 Year Argument,” which takes us behind the scenes of editor Robert Silvers’ storied weekly and finds, to its great reassurance, an American cultural Goliath little affected by the tectonic shifts that have reduced so much print media to rubble. Enlivened by new and vintage interviews with NYRB contributors who recount the stories behind their stories, this sharply etched, admittedly specialized portrait (first shown as a work-in-progress at this year’s Berlin Film Festival) should find its natural home on HBO, where it premieres Oct. 6.
To tell the story of the NYRB is in many ways to revisit six decades of tumultuous political and cultural affairs — those that the Review was born out of (specifically, the 1963 New York newspaper strike) and those it has reported on with a consistent disregard for whichever way popular opinion was blowing. Not for nothing, the film makes clear, did Silvers and co-editor Barbara Epstein place “of Books” in considerably smaller typeface on the second line of the paper’s masthead. While book reviews have always been the staple content (with an emphasis on championing the little-known and shooting down overpraised white elephants), the paper largely made its reputation as a forum for provocative commentary and reporting, from Mary McCarthy on Vietnam to Mark Danner on Iraq.
It’s a daunting amount of ground to cover — easily imaginable as a sprawling, Ken Burns-style docu series — but which Scorsese and Tedeschi (Scorsese’s longtime docu editor) manage to corral into three primary strands: an overview of the NYRB’s origins and early years; a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of the paper’s current, day-to-day operations; and extended chapters devoted to some of the Review’s most celebrated pieces, recounted in their authors’ own words. To that end, the filmmakers have drawn on superb archival footage to make the likes of Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer as present in the film as more recent contributors like Michael Chabon, Zoe Heller and the playwright Colm Toibin, who speaks of the impact the paper had on literary and intellectual circles as far afield as his native Dublin. (In an elegant touch, each speaker is intro’d onscreen by an original, black-and-white Brigitte Lacombe portrait.)
Over the decades, the NYRB became a home for persecuted dissident writers (Vaclav Havel, Andrei Sakharov) and the staging ground for heavyweight ideological bouts: Sontag vs. Leni Riefenstahl on Fascism; Edward Said vs. Bernard Lewis on Orientalism; Gore Vidal vs. just about everyone on just about everything. Nor has age diminished the paper’s relevancy: Among the docu’s most engaging episodes are those devoted to Michael Greenberg’s ground reporting of the Occupy Wall Street movement and Yasmine El Rashidi’s riveting eyewitness account of the violent 2011 Maspero demonstrations in Cairo (with its evenhanded attempt to answer the question of who fired first upon whom).
Like the recent docus on the New York Times (“Page One”) and Vogue (“The September Issue”), “The 50 Year Argument” comes mainly to lionize, but makes no pretense to the contrary. Filmed sitting in his office surrounded by overarching stacks of books and nary a kindle or iPad in sight, the 84-year-old Silvers takes an obvious paternal pride in the Review’s achievements and the rare degree of independence — unencumbered by editorial boards or corporate overlords — it continues to enjoy to this day (and which sets it apart even from such other storied cultural bastions as the New Yorker and the Paris Review). Yet as the historic anniversary looms — and, with it, a round of celebrations including a star-studded event at the Town Hall — he seems almost surprised, as if he just looked up one day and a half-century had passed.