Movie Review: Can Salinger Reveal the Man Behind the Mythical Author?

There is nothing cinematic about writing. What’s cinematic is typing. The slap and click of the keys, the furrowed brow damp with sweat, the ubiquitous cigarette smoke and throbbing fingertips. Typing is sexy. But typing, unfortunately for documentary filmmakers who want to make movies about writers, is not writing.

That’s one of the stumbling blocks, trying to force visual drama out of a toiling process that is entirely internalized, of Shane Salerno’s sprawling new documentary Salinger, about that famously reclusive author who wrote The Catcher in the Rye. To pen a single work of such monumental influence would make any author legendary. But J.D. Salinger took to the hills after success, and less-than-fawning critical reaction to his Catcher follow-ups, overwhelmed him. Living in a tiny town on the New Hampshire-Vermont border, Salinger discovered something about celebrity: sometimes the more you try to hide, the more famous you become.

There’s much rich soil to till in the life of the author. His well-bred childhood sets up a paradigm so many biographers are seduced by, the idea that a literary character and his creator are one in the same. Salerno tosses that around for a bit. A second intrigue in Salinger’s life is the time spent in World War II, a tremendous, harrowing ordeal that saw the young writer on the front lines on D Day, in the snow at the Battle of the Budge and traipsing into the carnage of the concentration camps. That trauma, Salerno argues, was another ingredient in the genius.

Then there’s Salinger’s rather peculiarly love life. He always had a thing for young girls, even later in life when he wrote young fans and invited them to his reclusive compound in New Hampshire. A longing for innocence, Salerno tells us, is the takeaway from that aspect of the writer’s life. Those appetites play in contrast to a more tempestuous family life, which saw the writer neglect his wife and children for his even more secluded, bunker-like cabin behind his remote house where he would hold up for weeks at a time writing. He could never really give up his Holden Caulfield-like assault on normality, the film suggests.

Around these thematic probes, Salerno builds up a great deal of noise. There is the dramatized typing, shot in high contrast light on a darken theater stage in an old, dripping-ly romantic theater. There are actors and authors singing Salinger’s praise like a well-tuned chorus. There are flashbacks to war and flash-forwards to contemporary attempts to sniper-shoot Salinger with telephoto lenses. There’s the whole terrible ordeal of the three men who killed – or tried to kill – famous figures, citing Holden Caulfield as their hero (the recount of John Lennon’s murder may be the most emotionally-affecting part of this film. I still can’t believe that’s how Lennon went). But what Salerno doesn’t do very well is open up Salinger the man in way that dispels – or looks beyond — the myth. In fact, if you read any of the obituaries that were printed following Salinger’s death in 2010, you’ll be familiar with much of the dramatized data on display here.

But there is a cliffhanger: in 2015 we will finally get a chance to see some of the writing Salinger toiled on for so many years up in mountains. It is an announcement that brings as much excitement as trepidation. The lonely, tormented man, up there for so long, abandoning so much in his life in order to place himself in the service of that clicking typewriter. I so want it all to be great, or even just good. But what if it’s not? What is the man then? That’s the real story of J.D. Salinger.