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.
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.