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The 50 Year Argument, the new documentary codirected by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi, opens with a tender and hard-hitting monologue about the subjectivity of journalistic stories due to the impossibility of the human mind being able to objectively record and store memories from our lives. Because of this mental improbability, we rely on stories we tell ourselves or stories we read in newspapers or online to receive our information, and we use that as the makeup for our opinions and our ideas about the world. This monologue was taken from an article written by Oliver Sacks from "The New York Review of Books" in 2013 and it sets the right tone for the documentary, which serves as a ninety-minute history of the publication.
"The New York Review of Books" has been a cornerstone for literary criticism and opinion on social and political ideas since 1963. We learn how, from the get-go, the magazine was never interested in denoting a bias or acting as a politically involved piece of literature in a sea where numerous other publications fulfill that same need. Instead, the magazine decided to be a haven for well-written, intelligently-researched and organized publication catering to those who love literature, classic and contemporary, and those who enjoy reading well-articulated, eloquent editorials on social and political ideas. The magazine, we see, is almost like a coffeeshop on the pages of a book, minus the aroma of coffee and the environmental perks of a social resting place; it's a collection of editorials by readers for readers and its essays have gone on to be highly-regarded pieces of criticism.
The 50 Year Argument shows the magazine's emergence during the bitter writers strike and Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's to become a beloved source for thought-provoking ideas to flourish. For starters, at only ninety-one minutes, there's an evident amount of rushing present to try and hit all the main points of the magazine's history, making the film feel like a greatest hits compilation of sorts. This means that no singular news story can be developed in its entirety, which allows for more topics to be mentioned and analyzed, but not enough to truly make one seriously contemplate any specific issues.
In addition, The 50 Year Argument occasionally becomes redundant, as it is basically a montage of talking heads discussing the magazine's significance, rather than developing on specific issues or how exactly the magazine is put together. Scorsese and Tedeschi desperately try to make sure every writer and editor is included in the film that it isn't until the film is over that you realize you really can't identify anyone else in the film except for Robert Lane, the magazine's chief editor.
The 50 Year Argument will no doubt be embraced and thoroughly enjoyed by loyal readers of "The New York Review of Books," and the magazine really deserves a film to analyze and state its significance and its role in many different news stories since the early 1960's. Yet, despite the generous runtime and the admirable attempt of inclusion, I can't help but feel this was an exercise much too lengthy for its own good.
NOTE: The 50 Year Argument will air throughout the month of October 2014 on HBO.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi.
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