It may not be the definitive documentary on the history of American films, but Martin Scorsese's series of films, commissioned by the British Film Institute for showing on TV, represents one of the most incisive examinations of the director's role in Hollywood filmmaking. Scorsese isn't just an outstanding filmmaker; he's a student of film, religiously examining works of his predecessors for clues on how they smuggled personal concerns between the lines of a collaborative and commercial art form. Coming from a filmmaker who has never made a box-office blockbuster and has yet to win an Academy award, this project is a valentine to other outsiders, the filmmakers who worked within the studio system but slipped beneath the radar of censors and studio chiefs who would homogenize American film. That's not to say that Scorsese and his colleague Michael Henry Wilson only celebrate quirkiness; respect is paid to John Ford, Frank Capra, Vincente Minnelli, and Howard Hawks, men who produced audience-friendly films that didn't insult the intelligence of filmgoers. One of the series' greatest strengths is its insistence on running long exceprts to illustrate Scorsese's theses. So many recent documentaries about filmmaking, either due to limited budgets or sheer laziness, truncate clips; what they gain in narrative speed, they lose in impact and depth. What Scorsese sacrifices here -- he touches only lightly on films made in the last 30 years and hardly at all on independent cinema, science fiction, horror, and documentary -- he more than makes up for with his enthusiasm and love for the medium.
by Tom Wiener review