An unprecedented look inside the private world of J.D. Salinger, the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye.

The author as cash machine.

Poor Jerome David Salinger. An ambitious and tenacious young writer whose ascendancy to the pages of The New Yorker was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, he carried six chapters of his novel-in-progress, The Catcher in the Rye, throughout his 299-day stint as a footsoldier in Europe, working on it sporadically along the way.

It all sounds pretty phony, if you want to know the truth.

Upon its eventual publication in 1951, the novel’s immediate international success has an interesting effect on the writer, who almost certainly suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his experiences in the war (what’s documented is that he suffered a nervous breakdown after assisting in the liberation of a Dachau satellite camp). Salinger decamped to the woods of New Hampshire and stayed there, occasionally issuing a short story and, depending upon whom you believe, either nurturing a reputation as more or less reclusive or enduring the glorification of it by the outside world.

So the natural question is, how does one construct a documentary about a recluse? The inevitable answer is: with miles of stock footage, dramatic recreations and the constant recycling of what photographs of the subject actually exist. The question of why someone would build such a thing is an entirely different matter, a query that is never properly addressed in director Shane Salerno’s nine-years-in the making Salinger.

And with good reason: the co-author of a companion book on Salinger, Salerno has created a two-hour biography that is half interesting backstory and half cynical cash-grab infomercial on behalf of a trust, created by the author prior to his 2010 death, that promises the publication of unknown manuscripts between now and 2020 (a fact that was already public knowledge).

It all sounds pretty phony, if you want to know the truth.

But that first hour and a bit is genuinely interesting, laying the groundwork of Salinger’s pre-war years via interviews with, and sound bites from, old friends, celebrity fans (Martin Sheen, etc.) and biographers—lots and lots of biographers. A highlight finds Philip Seymour Hoffman ruminating on how lucky most people are to take anonymity for granted—a sentiment that gains traction once Salinger’s pattern of befriending, and sometimes marrying, much younger women has played out.

There’s even a genuinely new bit of information about Salinger, specifically his brief post-war marriage to a woman who may or may not have been a member of the Nazi party.

The film ping-pongs back and forth in time, jumping forward to address a sadder example of the legion of Salinger stalkers who would hang about at the end of his dirt road in search of wisdom. 'I don’t pretend to know the answers," one remembers the author telling him. 'I’m not a counsellor, I’m a fiction writer."

Salerno’s one genuinely interesting visual conceit finds an actor resembling Salinger, alone on a darkened stage, hunched over a typewriter on a wooden table. Behind him, on the screen, newsreel clips play out to approximate what’s going on in the writer’s head. The apogee of this is the creation process just prior to the publication of 'The Catcher in the Rye," where the otherwise bombastic and oppressive score serves an actual purpose in revealing how Salinger poured all his life experience—particularly that of World War II—into the novel.

So, does Salinger represent a missed opportunity to profile the life of a private writer whose only novel became amongst the most popular books of the century? Yes.

Is there a crying need for such a film? There’s little doubt J.D. Salinger would’ve hated the thing, and litigated to have it suppressed (in the early stages, Salerno worked on the film in secret to avoid just such an occurrence). One’s curiosity for all things Salinger is easily sated through existing biographies and research, and since there’s only mere minutes of footage of the man himself in the film, once just after the war and again in New Hampshire near the end of his life, it isn’t as if there’s a treasure trove of visual material waiting to be revealed.

Which leaves Salinger the film a palpably cynical thing. And that’s depressing as hell.

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2 hours
In Cinemas 06 September 2013,