Oscar- and Emmy-winning director Kirk Simon’s The Pulitzer at 100 boasts a remarkable cast and some of the best lines ever written in the history of American arts and letters. It’s also a self-congratulatory bore. Simon celebrates the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize, first awarded by Columbia University in four categories in 1917, by speaking with a vast array of winners from the worlds of journalism (Carl Bernstein, Martin Baron, Thomas Friedman, Nicholas Kristof, Sheri Fink, David Remnick), fiction (Toni Morrison, Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Jeffrey Eugenides), drama (Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Ayad Akhtar), music (Wynton Marsalis, John Adams), biography (Robert A. Caro), poetry (Yusef Komunyakaa), photography (John Filo, Nick Ut), and more. He also films Martin Scorsese, Helen Mirren, Natalie Portman, Liev Schreiber, John Lithgow, and Yara Shahidi performing selections from the works of some of their favorite writers, including Philip Roth, Harper Lee, and Eugene O’Neill. Interspersed between all of the literary lathering are interesting tidbits — delivered by such historians as Cyrus Patell, Theodore L. Glasser, Roy Harris, and James McGrath Morris — from the life and times of one Joseph Pulitzer, an Austro-Hungarian merchant’s son who came to America as a mercenary to fight in the Civil War. Pulitzer eventually got involved in newspaper publishing, had yellow-journalism battles with William Randolph Hearst, and left money for Columbia to start the Graduate School of Journalism.
Simon lets the prize winners glory in their success, explaining what winning the award meant for their careers; the journalism awardees also delve into the stories they covered to win the trophy, including Kent State, Watergate, Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnam War, Tiananmen Square, and 9/11. While there are some fascinating revelations — particularly by Ut, describing how he took the famous photo of young Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc running from a napalm blast, then poured water over her back to help her (Kim also appears in the film) — most of the news stories are already overly familiar to the viewer, with not enough time to really tackle the subjects properly here. Of course, that’s not really what the film is centrally about, anyway. And it gets especially glib when several of the winners poke fun at the physical award itself, as if it’s really no big deal. Meanwhile, the performances by the stellar actors are far too serious and feel like their readings are just time fillers. Simon (Chimps: So Like Us, Strangers No More) can’t seem to decide what kind of film he’s making. It would have been more interesting learning further about Pulitzer himself rather than listening to terrific writers lavish praise on themselves, their colleagues, and their forebears. Oh, the film, which has no voice-over narration, does put to rest one important part of the Pulitzer legacy: Only one of the speakers says “Pyew-litzer,” while all the others pronounce Joseph’s last name as “Pull-itzer.” The Pulitzer at 100 opens July 21 at Lincoln Plaza, with Simon participating in Q&As at the 7:00 shows on Friday and Saturday night.