While delivering some fascinating talking head interviews with long-time editor Robert Silvers, Scorsese and Tedeschi’s doc best resembles a pleasant soirée. It skips over some of the trickier details in favour of getting back on track to talk of how infinitely resilient the Review has been. For instance, with one fell swoop, the publication was able to counter all manner of Internet and digital threat by creating the NYR Blog. Who knew it was so easy? It tells of the Review as lovingly as Page One: Inside The New York Times did about that other cultural behemoth. And yet, it doesn’t really probe the concept of crisis and how big ideas can overcome it if there are enough talented people there to rescue faltering reportage.
However, the insight offered into the opinions of its contributors, from Gore Vidal to Norman Mailer to Susan Sontag, can often be enlightening. To talk of a story’s conception, heated and famous rivalries, controversial opinion-making, all characterise the Review’s fortitude and political will. Perhaps the legacy of The 50 Year Argument will not be on how perceptive or dextrous it was in handling the history of the Review but in defending the need for expert voices to write on expert topics. Indeed the age of blogging and reviewing can be disheartening, after all, who isn’t a “critic” today? However, we are still in search of inimitable literature that feeds the soul; while this can absolutely embalm itself online, critical thought seldom races beyond a throwaway, cursory remark.
Much like a wrought antithesis to the speed of online production, The 50 Year Argument is slow, cerebral and thoughtful. It is a series of handshakes and pats-on-the-back, admittedly admiring some sterling journalism, and addressing events from Vietnam to Occupy Wall Street, constantly wrestling with its own liberalism. For this, it is a rather gripping and moving documentary; conceivably there is simply far more to be said on the Review’s struggles, financial considerations, external competition and criticism — in a sense an even more rounded approach to the landscape the Review has existed in over the last half-century.