Review: HBO Documentaries ‘The 50 Year Argument’ Is An Interesting Watch On The NYRB

‘The 50 Year Argument’ is a lengthy documentary directed by Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi about the cultural importance of the New York Review of Books (NYRB). It is not so much a critique or tell-all, as a celebration of an institution and a marveling at how important the NYRB has been for the last fifty years.

The film maintains a standard documentary format, splicing up film footage and stills with interviews. At times the choices of footage seems odd, and it is much more difficult than it should be to follow the narrative of the documentary.

There is a certain level of pretension built into the film’s narrative. This coupled with some rather highbrow interviews points the documentary towards a very specific audience.

It is clear from the beginning that the film was written with a favored view towards the NYRB. There is nothing wrong with this, but even in the midst of admiration there is always room for criticism or critique. If the NYRB has played such an intricate role in shaping the cultural arguments of the last half-century then surely it has done something that could be questioned or criticized. At least the hint of drama would increase the overall watchability of the film. After awhile it just seems like more of the same.

At its best, ‘The 50 Year Argument’ is an interesting watch, but for the most part it is a somewhat bore of a documentary. It tells a good enough story, but it includes too much filler and gets a bit artsier than necessary. Just as the New York Review of Books has a very particular audience, so does this celebratory documentary. If you are one of the many people who enjoy the NYRB then you will find something to like about this film. Other people can probably get all they need out of the film’s synopsis.

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