Martin Scorsese has directed some of the most visually ambitious, violent, raging, and intense movies ever made. Now he’s made a documentary about The New York Review of Books. So, naturally this movie isn’t quite a visceral as one might expect from the little guy with a brilliantly deranged imagination, but that hardly means it’s a bad movie either. Ultimately, it’s a profile piece and an editorial exercise. There’s little of Scorsese’s trademark flash and I’d hesitate to even describe the movie as cinematic.
Yet, the doc is an intriguing enough of a profile piece and has a subject at the center worthy of this treatment. That Scorsese was the man who made The 50 Year Argument (along with his co-director and longtime editor David Tedeschi) is a selling point, but not the documentary’s purpose. His fingerprints aren’t smudged over every frame. He’s not the star. Nope, that title falls onto longtime New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, whose storied weekly is lovingly explored and studied. It goes without saying that the appeal is pretty much limited to those already enamored with the publication, but that publication has done pretty well for itself over the years, so obviously an audience exists.
Silvers holds court throughout the film with a collection of interviews conducted by Scorsese with the structure hinged on the history of the publication. Hardly a bad history to focus on either, given that it all began at the heart of the civil rights movement in the 60s, remains a cultural institution to this day, and the publication always dove headfirst into any and all issues of the day and not just book reviews, critiques, and intervews. While dancing through its rich history, Scorsese delights in reviving old arguments and issues. The filmmakers pull stills, stock footage, and text together into rapid fire montages exploring debates between the likes of Susan Sontag and Leni Riefenstahl or reviving original groundbreaking articles about wars, feminism, revolts, and everything else that the magazine explored over the years.
Wisely, when a famous piece slips into the movie every now and then, Scorsese had them read by their original authors. When possible the likes of Michael Chabon or Zoe Heller recorded their own words and participated in interviews. When that’s impossible, the filmmakers finds vintage recordings and interviews to serve the same purpose. The breadth and importance of the magazines’ five decades of writing builds wonderfully and undeniably makes an impression. This isn’t just a celebration of a publication’s success, but of the ideas that it helped foster. That makes for quite an intriguing and fruitful watch. Also, Scorsese’s refined sense of pacing and tempo keeps the movie from ever feeling academic. The doc is always moving and growing, even when the audience has nothing to look at on the screen beyond highlighted text.
Outside of all of the celebration and backslapping, the filmmakers also include contemporary footage of the magazine’s production and a brief exploration of how it’s able to survive in the current media landscape despite being run by a man who once feared even expanding into blogs. This isn’t a film that uses its core publication as a means to explore the challenges and possibly impending death of print media like recent documentaries about The New York Times and Vogue. There’s no attempt by Scorsese and Tedeschi to transform this into an issue movie. The history of The New York Review of Books has plenty of issues to cover on its own, so there’s no need to distract and distort. For those inclined to enjoy a doc about this subject, it’s safe to say that Scorsese has delivered a project that’s only flaw is that eventually has to end and exclude some infamous piece. For those who couldn’t care less about the magazine, the movie will offer very little of interest (even for Scorsese fans). It’s a niche project to say the least, just one with a large and passionate niche who will be more than happy to eat it up. That’ll do just fine. Everyone else just might learn something interesting in the process.