Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi directs this look back at the 50 year history of the New York Review of Books. In 1963, founders Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, along with publisher A. Whitney Ellsworth and writer Elizabeth Hardwick, took advantage of the New York printers’ strike to establish the New York Review of Books. In addition to book reviews, the New York Review of Books would also feature opinion pieces about current events and the publication became known for exposing stories less reported and making challenges to mainstream media. Framed by a 2013 event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the journal, The 50 Year Argument features footage of icons such as Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, and Norman Mailer, as well as interviews with current contributors, and examines how the publication became America’s leading journal for ideas.
Every few years, Martin Scorsese will take a break from feature films and direct a documentary. Scorsese is probably best known for using musical subjects for his documentaries, such as 1978’s The Last Waltz, 2005’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, and 2008’s Shine a Light. For his latest documentary, co-directed by his longtime documentary editor David Tedeschi, Scorsese moves into a more political subject matter with this look at the history and influence of the New York Review of Books.
The film is framed around an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication, which featured speeches by many of those who were involved with the magazine. The film also follows the day-to-day operations of the New York Review, which is still run by founding editor Robert Silvers. The history of the publication is shown through rare archive footage, as well as narration by Michael Stuhlbarg.
It is probably undeniable why Scorsese decided to make a documentary about the New York Review of Books. Created in response to the decline in quality of the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books became an important publication, which would publish things that the mainstream establishment would just skim over. The film covers the publication’s involvement in events such as the civil rights movement and issues such as feminism. In fact, probably the most intriguing aspect of the film is footage of Norman Mailer arguing against feminism at a press conference and an ensuing argument with Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show. That section of The 50 Year Argument is arguably where the film peaked for me, with the film slowly losing me for the rest of its running time.
Ultimately, The 50 Year Argument can be seen as 95 minutes of the New York Review of Books patting itself on the back. There is nothing really wrong with the way Martin Scoresese and David Tedeschi present the history of the publication, it just didn’t feel that the film had anything to say, other than “this is an important publication that a lot of really well-known journalists wrote for”. This documentary was fine enough, but ultimately not really for me.7 | FAIR