Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: ‘The 50 Year Argument’ review


Martin Scorsese and editor turned co-director David Tedeschi pay homage to a 20th century American institution in The New York Review of Books: A 50 Year Argument (2014). Their third documentary together following 2005’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011), the duo delve into the journal’s eventful fifty-year history, from its emergence during the writer strikes and Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s through to the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Though far from subjective – the documentary was, after all, commissioned by the publication – it’s made all the more palatable thanks to an impressive roll call of intellectual titans.

Blending old-fashioned fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking with compelling archive footage and talking head interviews, Scorsese and Tedeschi aim to offer not just an overview of the Review’s half-century history, but also seek to highlight some of the newsworthy events that the magazine has covered in-depth since its conception. Despite the often humorous, The Office-style mundanity of the Review towers (editor Robert Silvers appears to dictate all of his emails to whichever underling happens to be listening at the time), it’s the monumental clashes of intellect that really capture the imagination. One such altercation between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal on the subject of misogyny and sexism is perhaps as close one can get to a bloodless, wordsmithing, gladiatorial duel.

Mailer and Vidal are not the only high-minded heavyweights to feature in this wide-reaching celebration. James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, Joan Didion and the inimitable Susan Sontag (herself the subject of another documentary showing at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, where The 50 Year Argument received its world premiere) are all held aloft as bastions of freethinking individuality at a time of substantial sociopolitical upheaval in both America and the world beyond. Confrontation and enlightened debate are both singled out as the Review’s key virtues, vehemently upheld by the aforementioned Silvers and also the late Barbara Epstein, who is fondly and touchingly remembered by those who knew and revered her as not just a person, but as a crusader for truth in a world of deceit and political doublespeak.

So, how does this apparent ’50 Year Argument’ end? The ultimate, glorious defeat of long form cultural analysis in the face of 24-hour news broadcasts, microblogging and reduced audience attention spans? It’s hard to be sure at times as to just what Scorsese and Tedeschi are trying to ascertain, changing tack halfway through the film and abandoning the fluid opening salvo of themes and ideas for a more linear, chronological passage to the present day. The 50 Year Argument is arguably at its most engrossing when revelling in the characters that passed through the Review’s doors, rather than in its attempts to crowbar in a wide range of pivotal historic events that would require an entire series of docs – let along a portion of one – to even scratch the surface of. A heartfelt semi-elegy, then, but also an unfocused one.

Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.

Daniel Green