The 50 Year Argument, a literary documentary on The New York Review of Books directed by Martin Scorsese, available through HBO, is not necessarily the Tour de Force that only pats the intellectual echelon on its cashmere-and-tweed-backs, which some may expect. Amongst the many things glossed about the publication, its business-and-literary-minded beginnings, management and cultural movements it’s inspired and helped hold accountable, the literary-documentary captures a reality that people often forget: people who work for “the word,” professionally or otherwise, those publically and privately seized by the sensuousness of ideas in order to “better” the world, are also committed in a quietness that’s not often recognized.
Through any medium, it’s difficult to demonstrate peoples’ interior work because those accomplishments will always be in solitude. As the introduction prefaces, human beings construct narrative as a way to mediate and externalize their interior experiences. The 50 Year Argument gives access to that daily minutia and slog and grants perspective on the importance of intellectual pursuits.
During the opening, the documentary recounts an abridged version of a final section from Oliver Sacks’ essay “Speak, Memory,” from February 2013 which reads:
Scorsese’s lit-doc is a testament to the work ethic necessary of a publication that’s determined to create both an objective and curated collective memory. Today, writers and readers must be reminded that freedom of expression is not a right that can go untendered. Especially when such “untendering” yields itself to compromise, what with the mismanagement of people and mission and ethics in today’s leading media (e.g. The New Republic, Rolling Stone).
The 50 Year Argument isn’t just a documentary about a highly influential publication, but an exegesis that cultural criticism, as a political act and art form, “this communion,” wrote Oliver Sacks, the secular ritual of sharing and challenging one another with ideas, is a collective decision to better each other, and, with hope, raise our ethical standards who share common languages, English or otherwise.