Salinger is built like an homage, speaking of the man with a spiritual reverence, maintaining an air of enigmatic romance with “never before seen” imagery and footage. The author’s elusiveness is the throughline, and Salinger wants desperately to play a part in the creation of his mythology, assembling old friends and contemporaries to talk about his work and character with great solemnity. It works, not because the film is effectively made, but because the story of Jerry “J.D.” Salinger is so salient. For those who have read Salinger, and felt a kinship with the man through that writing, Salinger is the rare film that unlocks its subject while somehow telling you what you already knew: He was a true artist, and true artists don’t owe us anything.
Broken into two distinct eras, Salinger deals with the author’s ambition and geyserous ascent, and then his indignation with the realities of celebrity. It articulates the frustration of an artist whose art became something magnificent to everyone, and how it resulted in the artist shutting himself away from the world. It reveals him to be a true visionary, the kind of creative whose work was a compulsion of the spirit, and the lamentable fact that, while Salinger’s outlet happened to require an audience, for him it was only ever about the creation of something without flaws. He turned away from the world not because of an intrinsic hermitage, but because the world let him down. After publishing his last work in 1965, J.D. Salinger continued writing for the rest of his life, keeping it all to himself.
As far as the documentary goes, Salinger is a messy two hours, full of creakily constructed (but necessary) reenactment footage, and unsure of precisely what it wants to say. Director Shane Salerno has collected a wealth of Salinger-lovers to serve as talking heads, and certainly the history of Salinger drawn in Salinger is complete and fascinating — the author’s experiences with World War II and his consequent Anschauung are particularly compelling — but Salerno doesn’t know what to do with it all, and his tone is never fixed. While most of the film feels deferent, too much attention is given to old loves and the heartbreak of being close to Salinger. The story of Joyce Maynard, a 70s era writer who took up with Salinger for nearly a year, feels crammed into place at the end of the film’s ostensible third act, and is far too tabloid-y for a film supposedly devoted to the man’s legacy.
But the safety net is larger for a documentarian, and Salerno’s research mostly outlives his weaknesses as a story teller. With its remarkable peaks and permeating melancholies Salinger’s story was built for artistic lore, but it is the author’s self-imposed laconicism that made him a myth in his own lifetime. And the grandest irony in Salinger’s story is the awareness that his desire to be left to his work, to slip away quietly, is precisely what kept him so alive in the public consciousness, the last place he ever wanted to be. Salinger would have hated Salinger, as he hated media and the way its depictions of the subject never rang true, and so for a person who feels a connection to the man through his work, it’s hard to say the film is good. But it’s also impossible to deny that that connection we feel to him leads us to want more of him, and Salinger certainly can give that. It is somehow both a passionate tribute and a sensationalistic profile, and it seems the only solace a true Salinger fan can take after watching the film is the guilt of having done so.