It’s hard to make any movie about newspapering these days without it feeling like a wallow in nostalgia.
So with “The Newspaperman,” the new documentary about Ben Bradlee, the iconic editor of The Washington Post, director John Maggio doesn’t even try. His portrait of Bradlee, a giant from the Watergate era Washington Post, captures the windswept romance of a swaggering crusader who oversaw the newspaper that brought down what we used to regard as the corrupt presidential administration in American history.
The film, premiering on HBO Dec. 4, has memories of “The Good War” and the glamour of Camelot and the tension of exposing the military’s cynical desire for and conduct of the Vietnam War by publishing “The Pentagon Papers,” also the subject of this Christmas’s feature film, “The Post.”
Maggio, a mainstay of the PBS documentary series “American Experience,” may have taken the easy way out, building his film around Bradlee reading his own memoir “A Good Life” (he died in 2014). But how else was he going to capture the chain-smoking, fast-talking champion of “the truth?” Why NOT let him narrate his own story?
I mean, Jason Robards, who spun Bradlee into a crusty, cocksure icon for Democracy in the classic real history thriller “All the President’s Men,” died 17 years ago, so he wasn’t available.
A native Bostonian of middle class roots, like FDR a polio survivor, a Navy veteran who fell for Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent” and proceeded to make himself one (for Newsweek), Bradlee married three times in an age when that just wasn’t done, expressed the barest hints of remorse at the children and families he left behind, sized-up his reporters and kept them on task and focused as the Post went after “The Watergate Plumbers” and every tainted member of the Nixon Administration who had a hand in their hiring, creation and cover-up, all the way to the president himself.
“I don’t think he ever had a moment’s guilt in his life,” PBS veteran Jim Lehrer opines.
Maggio was interested in Bradlee’s college-years attachment to a 20 year psychological study of Harvard men like Bradlee, how he could have been identified, straight out, as a stereotypical “alpha male,” a man the Navy taught “I liked sizing other men up.”
But the director, like the rest of us, is most fascinated by Bradlee’s years-long attachment of John F. and Jackie Kennedy, hobnobbing with them from the time Kennedy was new to Congress and Bradlee was finding his place, then with Newsweek in Washington.
Like the rest of reportorial Washington, Bradlee had some knowledge of Kennedy’s personal failings. But like most other reporters of his day, he kept his fellow Bostonian’s secrets, at least until Kennedy was president, and then assassinated.
His peers, his employees (Woodward and Bernstein are here, David Remnick, Bradlee’s widow Sally Quinn, Tina Brown, Henry Kissinger) and others talk about how “utterly inappropriate” that connection was — vacations together, sailing excursions. But different times, different mores, different rules. The documentary’s fixation on this era throws it somewhat out of balance, and having Bradlee give so much of “his” version of his life via the audio book readings undercuts the film at times.
It wasn’t until a few years after the Kennedy assassination that Bradlee was given the reins of the Post, “a second-rate provincial newspaper” in an age when the D.C. air “was thick with lies,” and turned it into the Washington institution it remains to this day.
Not that his hubris didn’t knock the paper down several pegs in the ’80s. The Janet Cooke made-up-stories debacle was merely the most public. I distinctly recall him brushing off criticism during a 1980s NPR interview with Bob Edwards, using his seat-of-the-pants hiring of a new movie critic (of course I’d remember that) with an “I think he’s terrific.”
The very young critic was quietly shoved out the door, under a cloud (using his journalistic access to peddle his scripts) within the year.
But the personality traits that the W.T. Grant Foundation study identified, “ability to adjust to changing realities” served Bradlee well enough through it all.
With “Newspaperman,” Maggio has given us an old school blustery, brilliant, competitive and righteous icon in the flesh, and not just the caricatures popular culture (J. Jonah Jameson and Perry White in comic books) has long fed us.
How are you going to truly understand the upcoming Oscar contender “The Post” (Tom Hanks plays him there, too nice?) without watching “The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee”? Here is something like the full measure of the man without Hollywood spin.
Bluff, arrogant, self-righteous, sure. But when your mistress is “the truth,” how could you be otherwise?
Which is why even though he didn’t live to see it or have any say over its coinage, you have to figure the truth-hunting Bradlee would love the Post’s new motto — “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” It’s just his style.
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, adult themes
Cast: Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Tom Brokaw, Sally Quinn, Jim Lehrer
Credits:Directed by John Maggio, script by Benjamin C. Bradlee. An HBO Films release.
Running time: 1:29