Documentaries frequently open with a sort of teaser for what follows: short clips with a succession of talking heads previewing what they’ll elaborate on later, which taken together provide a sort of thesis statement for the film. Salinger has that too, but the film opens with Newsweek photographer Michael McDermott recalling—and re-enacting—a 1979 stakeout of a post office he did while trying to get a photo of notoriously publicity-averse author J.D. Salinger. On its own, the story amounts to “I waited and waited, then I finally saw him for a few seconds,” but thanks to director Shane Salerno and an obnoxiously intrusive score, it sounds like something out of Mission: Impossible. By comparison, Lalo Schifrin’s famous score would’ve sounded subtle.
The montage of talking heads that follows may provide the film’s thesis, but McDermott’s scene reveals Salinger’s loud, frequently histrionic intent: Trivial, previously unseen footage of Salinger during World War II is treated like the missing audio from the Watergate tapes; snippets of reviews of The Catcher In The Rye are scored as if they’re testimonials to the triumph of the human spirit; and when the film finally climaxes with its rumored big reveal, all that’s missing are fireworks.
Those moments undermine a fascinating subject, as if the story of one of the 20th century’s most revered and complex writers needed more drama. Although Salinger’s family is unsurprisingly absent from the interviews, Salerno assembles an impressive array of Salinger confidants, biographers, and fans to paint a revealing portrait of a man who stridently believed the less readers knew about him, the better. The film delves deeply into how Salinger’s service in World War II—and the horrors he experienced during it—profoundly affected him, his strained relationship with his wives and children, his unnerving predilection for young women, and the motivations he had to step so purposefully away from the limelight. One of the best points Salinger makes is that he was no recluse, even though he was frequently described that way. Salinger was a regular presence in his hometown (whose residents remained fiercely protective of him until his death in 2010), kept up with news and the literary world, and indulged a surprising number of people who sought him out (albeit curtly).
The stories are pretty fascinating, but like all documentarians, Salerno faces the problem of what to put onscreen. The film can’t all be shots of people talking, so the director employs photos, generic footage, even a sketch artist drawing portraits of the people being discussed. But he also makes the strange choice to put a Salinger look-alike on a stage with a table and typewriter while footage is projected on a big screen behind him. The effect is more music video than serious documentary, especially as the film progresses and the stage setup changes to reflect what was happening in the author’s life. It’s dramatic and cheesy, which befits a man best known for co-writing the screenplays for Armageddon, Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem, the Shaft remake, and supposedly the fourth Avatar film.
When Salinger succeeds, it’s in spite of Salerno’s heavy hand and because of the implicit intrigue of J.D. Salinger’s life story. For a director who clearly reveres his subject’s work, he doesn’t grasp how the flashy, eardrum-busting pomp and circumstance of his film is exactly the kind of thing Salinger abhorred.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can’t reveal in our review, visit Salinger’s Spoiler Space.