First Run Features // 1998 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Eric Profancik (Retired) // June 2nd, 2005
"In an era when so much of what goes by the name of political argument
on television is really nothing more than crude sloganeering which precludes any
kind of serious thought, when most political documentaries are one sided
arguments for a single point of view, I wanted to make a film that championed
the importance of intellectual dispute itself."
-- Joseph Dorman, from the "Director's Statement"
Joseph Dorman has succeeded in his goal. While the film covers much material that I am not completely familiar, I was mesmerized by the historical discussion and development of political discussion by the New York intellectuals. Arguing the World follows four men, their views, and how world events molded and evolved their ways of thinking. As Dorman eloquently stated (in 1997), today's political debate is folly. It isn't true debate. It's simply two people pointing fingers at each other and trying to one-up each other. In the 2004 Presidential debates, this was so clearly exhibited as neither side bolstered their point with deep intellectual reasoning. Instead, it boiled down to here's my stump speech, he's wrong, so vote for me. On television today, when you watch Tim Russert, Bill O'Reilly, or any of the other countless talking heads on television, you get a variation on that theme. True political discourse isn't found at election time and it isn't found on television (though the McNeal Lehrer News Hour is close). The closest thing you can find is on university campuses, but even that is a pale imitation of its true roots.
We are introduced to four of the great political intellectuals of our time: Irving Howe, literary critic and "a leading voice of the left"; Nathan Glazer, sociologist and a "critic of the liberal welfare policy"; Daniel Bell, a "social theorist and a liberal centrist"; and Irving Kristol, a political essayist and "key intellectual architect of the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions." From their lowly and humble beginnings in New York City to their college years to their current activities, we learn how these once radical, young thinkers truly debated the ebb and flow of politics.
As I learned about these fascinating men, I realized quickly how little I know about the history of politics, how little we experience political debate, and how such deep discourse is practically a thing of the past. It reminds us that we've lost the ability to hold long, meaningful discussions about topics of great import. Today, debates are not in-depth examinations and opportunities to learn and grow; they are instead seen as moments to assert one's self and win. The vaulted debate societies of yesteryear are long gone, and their memory is fading with just a few men (and women) left to stoke the waning embers. Arguing the World made me sad and it made me think of how this art form (for lack of a better term) has died. It made me yearn for a revival of such spirited and heated debate where we would become involved and learn.
This documentary is fascinating in its chronological detailing of the lives of these four men. Things rapidly pick up the pace when we enter into their City College days and learn about their alcove societies. What really supports Arguing the World is its frequent use of historical footage and photos to assist the viewer putting everything in its proper perspective. Without this, much of the weight and power of the film would be lost. Hearing them talk about the alcove debates, their corner speeches, and other speaking events is crystallized when you actually see the young men in their alcoves or speaking on a street corner. You realize their passion and their power, long before television softened us all.
The film is presented on this disc with a full frame transfer and Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. Both are average without any significant errors, and, in all honesty, if you are watching this film it is for the message and not for the transfers. Fleshing out the DVD is a handful of bonus items. First up is a brief text "Director's Statement" by Joseph Dorman. I found it useful to read it first to help put the film in perspective, as I wasn't fully aware of what to expect. Next is a brief (8.5 minutes) interview with Dorman that details the genesis of Arguing the World. Following that is an archival photo gallery, biographies of the four men and Dorman, and some trailers for other First Fun Features films. If you put this disc in your computer, you'll find an excerpt of the book of the same name.
Arguing the World unfolds at a leisurely pace, but it will spark you to realize what has been lost in the realm of true political discourse. If politics is your fancy, then you must pick up this disc. If it isn't, then give this one a try anyway. You'll walk away inspired.
Review content copyright © 2005 Eric Profancik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Director's Statement
* Interview with the Director
* Archival Photo Gallery
* Book Excerpt