The 50 Year Argument

A Half Century at the New York Review Of Books

Robert Silvers has assigned thousands of pieces for The New York Review Of Books, so why not a documentary film? The 50 Year Argument originated along the same lines as one of the lengthy, learned articles in The Review; Mr. Silvers sought out a talented essayist, in this case Martin Scorsese, and asked him to explore a subject – the magazine’s 50-year history – that he was passionate about but not expert in.

Poster art for The 50 Year ArgumentAnd watching the film is a lot like reading one of those articles. Your attention wanders here and there, but when it’s over you take satisfaction in knowing you’ve learned an awful lot about something you were only superficially familiar with before. The 50 Year Argument, which Mr. Scorsese directed with David Tedeschi, is textured and smart but thoroughly celebratory, a paean to the magazine and the amazingly durable Mr. Silvers, now 84. (His fellow founding editor, Barbara Epstein, died in 2006.)

The film is loosely chronological but organized more by theme and personality – the issues The Review has chronicled, from civil rights to violence in the Middle East, and its stable of contributors, many of whom sit for interviews, including familiar names with perhaps unfamiliar faces, like Darryl Pinckney and Colm Toibin. In keeping with Mr. Silvers’s mission to make writing about books a way of writing about the world, Mr. Scorsese makes the history of the magazine a capsule of intellectual history of the last half-century.

He also sneaks in sentiment and ink-and-paper nostalgia with shots of Mr. Silvers in the office moving around stacks of books and marking up proofs. These scenes are full of young people carrying mail cartons and taking dictation, and you hope that one of them aspires to be the Robert Silvers or Barbara Epstein of 2063.

– Mike Hale, The New York Times

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