The early-in-life successes and later reclusiveness that defines the legacy of "Catcher in the Rye" author J.D. Salinger provides as fertile ground for a movie treatment as the novelist's work itself. So it's no surprise that "Salinger," director Shane Salerno's comprehensive overview of the writer's passions, intense creative drive and troubled personal life through the accounts of many who knew him well, provides a gripping opportunity to peek behind the veil of mystery enshrouding Salinger's career.
Beyond its obvious appeal to anyone remotely affected by his writing, however, "Salinger" also delivers a sensationalistic prelude to the tantalizing next stage in attention to his work: In addition to hitting theaters in conjunction with the release of an oral history co-authored by Salerno and David Shields, "Salinger" concludes by setting the scene for a series of posthumous publications of books Salinger wrote during the forty-odd years when he refrained from publishing anything until his death in 2010.
But even if the documentary's climactic revelation amounts to a commercial plug, it's an unquestionably enthralling one, as Salerno's two hour-plus account of Salinger's complexities covers virtually every aspect of his life story. Beginning with the author's early stirrings of writerly ambition, "Salinger" ably covers his eruption of post-"Catcher" fame and his eventual fading into a humble existence in Cornish, New Hampshire, where he lived out the rest of his days. Pushed along by a sometimes overbearing score, the movie repeatedly emphasizes the shroud of ambiguity that Salinger constructed around himself. Salerno's stylized indulgences don't shy away from overstating the dramatic nature of the story: His theatrical devices include repeated cutaways to a hand sketching caricatures of the author on white paper and reenactments of the agitated writer agonizing over his typewriter in front of a screen with projected images from his life.
In a less detailed project, these histrionic effects might stand out for glossing over a lack of meaty information, but "Salinger" fortunately has more than enough to spare. Because the filmmaker spent around a decade interviewing Salinger's experts and colleagues, the steady onslaught of voices coalesce into a singular depiction of the writer's contradictory impulses. On the one hand an energizing presence in his early days, driven by convictions about the pristine, iconoclastic quality of his work, Salinger also comes across as largely self-involved and destructive towards those around him -- including close family and friends.
Yet in its revelations of Salinger's flaws, the documentary capably strips away the fanaticism associated with his books to create the impression of a human being. Longtime pal A.E. Hotchner is seen returning to the bar where the men regularly played poker, fondly recalling the days when Salinger struggled with one New Yorker rejection letter after another. Miller, whose fascinating account of the friendship she forms with Salinger as a teenager explains the foundation for his short story "For Esmé—With Love and Squalor," recounts the menacing commitment Salinger placed in his writing above all else: "His work was ordained by god," she says.
More specifically, of course, Salinger's work was ordained by his experiences, and the movie zips along at its best clip when conveying many of the vivid moments that mandated the writer's oeuvre. Salerno reconstructs Salinger's time spent on World War II battlefields with an intense montage of still frames and frayed archival footage, including piles of dead bodies over recollections of the author's traumatic encounter with the Dachau concentration camp at the end of the war. These anecdotes feed directly into the narrative of Salinger's output, with his 1948 short story "A Perfect Day For Bananafish" reflecting his wartime trauma and providing him with his first big break. The implication that Salinger's success was the result of his struggle with personal demons helps explain his solitary existence, and lends a voyeuristic aspect to the proceedings.