The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee

Studio: HBO
Directed by John Maggio

Dec 05, 2017 Web Exclusive
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As a newspaper reporter and editor for nearly half of a century that his office did much to shape, Ben Bradlee lived by a motto with a profoundness that emanates from its simplicity, the kind that when heard aloud snaps one back on track from waning focus or creeping doubt: “Nose down, ass up, move steadily forward.” These are words for all to live by, as was Bradlee’s public example. For my generation, Bradlee’s passing in 2014 at the age of 93 didn’t reverberate as much as someone like Steve Jobs’ or even David Bowie’s, but cue HBO to “edutain” anyone post gen-x about fascinating figures they likely don’t know enough about. Not long into the richly absorbing film on Bradlee’s’ life and legacy, his transformative influence on post-war American society becomes strikingly clear, in large part through the reverent recollections of his media contemporaries. Bob Woodward, whose investigation with fellow reporter Carl Bernstein had uncovered the Watergate scandal under Bradlee’s charge at The Washington Post, once glossed that Bradlee’s passing in some respects marked the end of the 20th century, a summation The Newspaperman illustrates with eloquence.

In yet another superbly handled documentary of an American icon by HBO and in collaboration with Kunhardt Films, Bradlee’s impact as an ambassador for the press and the matchless swagger with which he led is chronicled by Bradlee himself. Reading from his 1995 memoir in New Englander diction made gruff by cigarettes and reinforced by the collected voices of the those that knew and admired him, we learn what he valued most. In the spirit of Thoreau, Bradlee wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life, seeking and revealing truth at any cost along the way. The truth was all it was about for Bradlee, that and the glamour that came with its occupation. “Reporters and editors are in the business of telling the truth. They’re not in the business of giving free passage.” wrote Bradlee in that memoir. He accepted wholly that the pursuit of truth doesn’t win you favor with people, save those who are tied to your mission. Yet to a man, Bradlee had the respect of not only the newsmen that were his colleagues, but the adversaries whose misdeeds he fearlessly sought to expose.

Director John Maggio steers us through Bradlee’s defining role through watershed events of the last half of the 20th century to which had a front row seat. Gracefully spliced vintage home movies, photographs and archival footage, much of it rare, moves Bradlee’s history briskly along like a fast news day. Accompanied by the great music of the times and nudged along by subtle sound effects of paper pages being turned or slide machines switching frames, you feel the unrivaled power of documentary film to artfully distill the historical impact of a figure. And Bradlee's larger than life charisma just heightens the intrigue.

At its center, of course, is Watergate and Bradlee’s determination as the executive editor of The Washington Post to expose the largest political scandal in American history and ultimately bring down President Richard Nixon in the face of enormous political and industrial pressures to drop the story. The same fearless commitment to the principles of his profession was exhibited in his winning first amendment fight against the federal government to publish The Pentagon Papers. These are the triumphs for which he is remembered most, but the lesser known mile markers of Bradlee’s story are just as immersive.

What becomes a powerful question through the course of his memoir come to cinematic life is how much did Bradlee hold the lens of truth he so espoused up to himself? Bradlee made a distinguished life out of finding and telling stories of interest, which is how he recognized that his own story met all of the criteria he had such a knack for sniffing out, including the controversies. Just as a real newsman would have reported it, a picture of a man is painted including the blemishes and misjudgments, though not so far as to assail his character.

Bradlee’s close friendship with John F. Kennedy was highly unusual for a journalist of his stature and went farthest to undermine his professional integrity and authority. As Richard Cohen of The Post noted, “Nobody ever got as close to a president as Ben did.” It was a relationship that began before Kennedy assumed the office, but its continuation throughout Kennedy’s first term and public nature were widely considered inappropriate for someone who was then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek. At the same time, that unprecedented connection did the most to underscore Bradlee’s status as the first celebrity editor, an element of great allure in the context of filmic exposition. Also touched on was the Janet Cooke mishap, which brought the painful lesson that you can never let the glory of reaching the pinnacle of your field – as Bradlee and The Post had after Nixon – obscure you from running out every ground ball. Hired by Bradlee, Cooke had fabricated a page one story that had earned her a Pulitzer under his watch, an oversight that tarnished his reputation and The Post’s before his call to fully accept accountability in detailed print for all to read.

Some parts of the story elicit a desire for further probing and give cause to visit the full manuscript for detail the film leaves out. The revelations about Bradlee’s then sister-in-law Mary Pinchot Meyer and her affair with JFK were rather unemphatically fit into the chronicle, mirroring Bradlee’s unremarkable reaction to it. Speculation is fueled further by the shade surrounding her Georgetown murder in broad daylight, indicating conspiracy and cover-up. And finally, there were Bradlee’s falters as a family man, the only mistakes for which he publicly admitted to having regrets. All the evidence of the damage caused can be found in the pain in his first son Ben Bradlee Jr’s eyes during his interviews, masked by the classiness with which he attempts to explain his father’s choices and the personal ramifications of them.

Mainly though, The Newspaperman aims and succeeds at casting Ben Bradlee in a positive an enviable light. If only we had the likes of a Ben Bradlee today. We are desperately in need of the newsman that will roll up his sleeves and as Bradlee once put it “hunker down” in the unpopular pursuit of uncovering the truth. With the standing of the press at an all-time low, and the importance of its role in preserving constitutional values becoming more clouded with each unsubstantiated news release floated out there for folly, the presence of a Bradlee would do much to restore credibility to a necessary institution. In recognition of that presence in the field, David Carr of The New York Times, Bradlee’s biggest competitor, once wrote that while “Journalists are bystanders who chronicle the exploits of people who actually do things... Ben Bradlee did things.”

www.hbo.com/documentaries/the-newspaperman-the-life-and-times-of-ben-bradlee

Author rating: 9/10

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Adana Web Tasarim
December 6th 2017
3:42am

someone who is always trying to be front-panel with quality. congratulations. Ben Bradlee!