A Look at Salinger: A Film by Shane Salerno || PBS American Masters

Photo: Courtesy of Antony Di Gesu

A special director's cut edition of Salinger, Shane Salerno's documentary of author J.D. Salinger, premiered on PBS this week in the States as the landmark 200th episode of the celebrated American Masters series. Being a great fan of Salinger's writing, I was excited to hear about the film's theatrical release back in September, but sadly I never got the chance to see it. So, catching it on TV was a thrill. Salerno spent the better part of a decade and several million dollars of his own money making Salinger happen, compiling interviews with over 150 people and undoubtedly toiling over unfathomable amounts of research. The result is, as Salerno himself said, a film that gives the viewer unprecedented access into the world of the enigmatic, reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye.

JD Salinger, Shane Salerno, American Masters, PBS Salinger and sister Doris | Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Huber

Known here as “Jerry” to his friends, we get a glimpse of the author’s childhood and his time at the Valley Forge Military Academy, as well as a rather tremendous, in-depth account of Salinger’s experience in the war, the writing of The Catcher in the Rye, the publishing of some of his most iconic short stories and novellas, and, finally, his relative departure from the public eye. Interviews with friends illuminate the truth of Jerry Salinger, affording the viewers an unparalleled closeness with the man behind the iconic status and illustrating a new depth to his unique character. Meanwhile, giants of the literary world – including Gore Vidal, A. Scott Berg, E. L. Doctorow, and Tom Wolfe - as well as devoted celebrity fans - Philip Seymour Hoffman, Martin Sheen, and Edward Norton among them – delve into the essence of Salinger’s legacy and ask the questions all admirers of Salinger have asked: why did he close himself off from much of the world for the last forty-plus years of his life and, perhaps most importantly, what did he write?

JD Salinger, Shane Salerno, American Masters, PBS "The Four Musketeers" | Photo: Courtesy of Denise Fitzgerald

Salinger - which is also the title of the 2013 oral biography Salerno co-wrote with David Shields - has a feeling of being something truly one-of-a-kind, and it carries the weight of that with a sort of brave, proud understanding (and maybe with a bit of well-deserved dramatic flair). Maybe it’s me, being someone who has long admired Salinger’s words but never embarked on the sort of mad hunt for more that his fans have been wont to undertake, but there seemed to be a wonderful, pulsating energy to Salinger that told of the promises it was making – seemingly impossible promises, but ones that, by the end of the film, have been well kept. I found it to be such a riveting piece of filmmaking, though one that many would say Salinger would have disapproved of. (In all reality, it was largely compiled while he was still alive, and in a last bit of footage at the end – details of which I won’t spoil – I think we all get the feeling that Salinger was giving the project his blessing.) I think every Salinger fan deals with the battle of knowing that, in questing for the man and the secrets and the answers, we’re doing quite what Salinger would tell us not to do. He’d likely tell us not to care, to leave him be. But Salerno handles the author’s legacy and even travels some of the more touchy personal controversies of his life with terrific grace and honesty, exposing truth and achieving accessibility without for a moment allowing the project to seem invasive.

JD Salinger, Shane Salerno, American Masters, PBS After the liberation of Paris. | Photo: Courtesy of Denise Fitzgerald

I think what struck me as the most powerful portion of the film was the chapter dedicated to Salinger’s time in the service during World War II. Landing on D-Day and staying in active duty through V-E Day, Salinger witnessed a shockingly prolonged exposure to the harrows of war – and then stayed in Europe as a detective in uniform to investigate the enemy after the war had ended. The interviews with the heroes he served with are the most heartbreaking moments of the film, and the raw, oftentimes affecting footage from the war adds a new level of understanding to the psychological effects the experience must have had not just on Salinger, but on all those who fought. From our perspective on Salinger's life, it's an eye-opening look at what sort of role his experiences in the war may have eventually played in his writing, most obviously as reflected in the struggles of Holden Caufield in Catcher.

JD Salinger, Shane Salerno, American Masters, PBS Writing Catcher. | Photo: Courtesy of Denise Fitzgerald

Salinger’s relationships – and, for a man largely considered to have been a recluse, he had many – are given a good deal of spotlight, which isn’t entirely surprising as they were a huge part of what public image he did have, and in many ways no other people could give a more instructive idea of the man Salinger was than the women he lived with. But Salerno doesn’t bother himself too much with gossip; he presents the full story out of dedication to his project, and that’s that. Perhaps most enticing to fans will be the little gems – such as the impossibly rare photo of Salinger writing The Catcher in the Rye during the war, the only known photo of the author penning what would become one of the most definitive American novels of all time – or the only video footage of Salinger during the war, an angle that shows us, somewhat appropriately, just a glimpse of his smile as he accepts flowers from a woman in Paris after the war has ended. And then there are the big gems: the insight into Salinger’s trust and the author’s wishes for his remaining work to slowly see publication, an event that will begin as early as 2015. In all, Salerno’s film is a veritable feast for Salinger fans and an impressively honest look at the known life of a well-secluded legend.

You can find information on Salinger, the film as well as the book, on SalingerFilm.com and connect with the film's team on Twitter. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno is available from Simon & Schuster. And lastly, more information on the director's cut edition of the film on American Masters can be found on PBS.org.

Photos sourced through the PBS Pressroom.