To wit: The WWII segment includes never-before-seen silent footage of the writer during that tumultuous period, providing the first of many indications that Salerno has done his homework many times over. From there, "Salinger" gets increasingly intimate with its subject, recalling his invariably rocky marriages and affairs with several women -- most notably Miller and fellow writer Joyce Maynard. While Maynard publicly discussed her romance with Salinger and its eventual dissolution long ago, her presence on camera provides a distinct look at the heated feelings that Salinger shared with her and their reverberations today. Maynard's unsettling account of confronting the writer at his home in the late nineties provides as much of a look at Salinger's tendency to put his writing ahead of his relationships as we're likely to get.
Though the movie contains no voice recordings of the author, it's certainly effective at giving him more dimensionality than the tenuous mythology surrounding him. "Salinger" efficiently makes argues that perceptions of Salinger's invisible nature have been exaggerated and even actively embellished by Salinger himself. As the late Gore Vidal (whose presence in the documentary reflects the years of work that went into this project) claims, "He was not a recluse. He appears when he feels like it."
The remembrances of those who actually spent time with Salinger or study his career succeed far better than the handful of celebrity testimonials about his lasting value, but Salerno wisely keeps these segments to a minimum. Even so, Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Cusack and Martin Sheen all surface to discuss their fondness for "Catcher in the Rye," and Salerno goes with one step further with a strange "Malcolm X"-like montage of smiling readers around the world holding up their copies of the book. A better representation of its personal impact on readers arrives with the account of Salinger super fan Michael Clarkson, who drove hundreds of miles to Salinger's town in 1978 only to get a reprimand from the writer for hoping to talk about life. "I'm not a councilor," Salinger allegedly says. "I'm a fiction writer."
"Salinger" competency argues that the truth was a lot more complicated than that, but at times it strains from simply offering up too much information at once. Passing details about his late-in-life interest in Vedanta Hinduism come and go, as do hints of his role as a father. By the time we arrive at the early eighties and the accounts of the several crazed shooters inspired by "Catcher" to commit their heinous acts, "Salinger" has already unveiled enough biographical details for a miniseries -- and still has 30 years left to cover.
Nevertheless, even with its epic volume of details, "Salinger" ends just when the story gets started. Announcing "a second act unlike any writer has had," several dramatic title cards detail the contents of books scheduled for posthumous publication between 2015 and 2020: a WWII love story, a religious manual and -- perhaps most significantly -- dual histories of the two invented families already famous from his work, the Glasses and the Caulfields. It's unclear whether it will be worth the wait or shift the public understanding of Salinger in any specific fashion. In any case, while the movie ends with a cliffhanger, the sequels are already on en route.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The Weinstein Company plans to release "Salinger" in New York and Los Angeles on September 6 followed by a nationwide expansion ahead of its airing as part of PBS's "American Masters" series next year. Considering the continuing interest in Salinger and the running media frenzy over publication of new work, the documentary is well positioned to perform strong in limited release and now becomes an early player in the Best Documentary Oscar race.