AS DELINEATED in Shane Salerno's energetic, informative and at times over-dramatized documentary, "Salinger," the celebrated writer spent the first part of his life lusting after literary success and the rest of it recoiling in horror at the consequences of his passion, refusing to publish anything and retreating to self-imposed, semi-reclusive exile in out-of-the-way Cornish, N.H.
But because he was J.D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye, which has sold about 60 million copies and been called "the great subversive anti-establishment book of all time," no one would leave him alone. Complete strangers would stalk him until, as one recounts in the film, Salinger would end up snapping, "I am not a teacher or a seer. I'm a fiction writer."
Although he never camped out in front of the great man's door, filmmaker Salerno is one of those obsessive fans. Best known for writing decidedly nonliterary movies such as "Savages" and "Armageddon," Salerno has spent nine years and an estimated $2 million of his own money investigating Salinger's life.
The photographs and information Salerno unearthed over all that time are impressive. Among Salerno's finds are a snapshot of Salinger working on Catcher in the Rye during a mesmerizing moment of World War II downtime.
We also learn about his brief postwar marriage to a German who may have worked for the Gestapo, and, in what is big news in literary circles, about the five books that Salinger, who died in 2010 at age 91, had written and arranged to be published starting in 2015.
Although neither of Salinger's children nor his widow sat for interviews, we do hear from people who were important in the writer's life. They help us understand how Salinger, in ways both sensible and strange, dealt with the enormous celebrity that came his way after Catcher was published in 1951.
The young writer had his first short story in print in 1940 when he was 21, but his great dream of being published by the New Yorker was derailed by World War II. He took part in the D-Day invasion, saw almost a year of fierce combat and was one of the first soldiers to enter a sub camp of Dachau, experiences that led to a post-traumatic stress disorder breakdown and continued to have a powerful impact on him. "You never really get the smell of burning flesh out of your nostrils," he once said. "No matter how long you live."
A perfectionist about his writing who could get melancholy about a misplaced comma, Salinger had yearned for success without realizing it would mean intrusions into his personal life as well as ungovernable demands on time when he wanted to be writing. Seen in that light, the writer's move to New Hampshire and his decision to keep working but stop publishing make a certain kind of sense.
All of this is compelling. But Salerno, as if he's unsure of what he's got, goes to great lengths to heighten the drama with crisp editing, a strong score, frequent sound effects and snappy visuals.
Less successful are the film's frequent dramatic re-creations of events in Salinger's life and, even worse, what it assumes is going on in his mind. One suspects that Salinger, an avowed enemy of phoniness, would hate the whole business.