The Trump administration’s campaign against mainstream journalism provides a timely backdrop to “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee,” a deeply personal, utterly fascinating portrait of the late Washington Post editor’s above-the-fold life.
Already immortalized in “All the President’s Men” (a portrayal, it’s noted, he dearly relished), Bradlee – who died in 2014 – is enjoying another moment, albeit posthumously. Steven Spielberg movie “The Post” is due later this month, and people are comparing coverage of President Trump to the Post’s unflinching work when Richard Nixon occupied the White House more than four decades ago.
Still, the Bradlee presented by director John Maggio – drawing liberally from his audiobook recordings, allowing Bradlee to tell the story in his own gravelly voice – demonstrates what a hugely colorful, larger-than-life figure he cut, casually recounting everything from his time in the Navy to his marital infidelities to his personal friendship with John F. Kennedy, which was complicated when JFK became president.
Not surprisingly, a sizable portion of the feature-length film is devoted to Watergate, with colleagues noting Bradlee understood that Nixon was “a world-class liar,” and as editor forged a bond with publisher Katharine Graham, who steadfastly supported him. When Nixon was finally forced from office, Bradlee walked through the newsroom, reminding reporters “Don’t gloat” during the resignation speech.
The biographical details are just as interesting, including Bradlee’s charismatic qualities and reputation as a ladies’ man, and his whirlwind romance with the Post’s Sally Quinn. Their son also presents another side of him, even if it’s a bit of a cliche – doting on a late-in-life child after having been somewhat absent for his older kids due to the commitment to his work.
The interviews, meanwhile, feature the expected who’s who of prominent Post alumni, but also Nixon administration figures like John Dean and Henry Kissinger, as well as other journalistic titans in Bradlee’s orbit, among them Tom Brokaw, Jim Lehrer and Tina Brown.
Although “The Newspaperman” captures Bradlee’s magnetism and swagger, it’s not a completely hagiographic picture. The project devotes a fair amount of time, for example, to Janet Cooke’s fabricated Pulitzer Prize-winning article about a child addict, “Jimmy’s World,” a major blotch on the Post’s record before Bradlee’s retirement in 1991.
Still, Bradlee and the newsroom that he led embodied the romance of journalism, during a pre-digital era when a celebrity editor wielded power in a manner that seemingly stood considerably taller than what’s possible in today’s whittled-down and diffused media landscape.
“I don’t regret very much,” Bradlee is shown saying during an interview (with Charlie Rose, it’s worth noting) reminiscing about his career.
At the risk of burying the lead, anyone who cares about journalism – then and now – won’t have any regrets about watching “The Newspaperman” either.
“The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” premieres Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. on HBO.