When I recommend documentaries, it’s sometimes for their high level of artistry and sometimes because the subject matter feels important. When you think about it, it should always be both, but I am the first to say it isn’t.
HBO’s new documentary on storied Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee is both. Please watch this program. It’s so well done and so fascinating, and it’s a strikingly honest look at an influential journalist in a cultural moment when distrust of the media and talk of “fake news” are at flood levels. This thing is the antidote for fake news. If journalism fascinates you, you need to watch this. If the clash between journalists and Persons in Places of Power fascinates you, you need to watch this. If you are not yet aware that these things fascinate you… well, you get the drift.
Newspaperman is mostly narrated in Bradlee’s own words (he says upfront that he had mixed feelings about writing a memoir or autobiography, but thank goodness he did) and in his own famous gritty bark of a voice (from the audiobook—Bradlee himself died in 2014). Maggio achieves a beautiful fusion of Bradlee’s own perspective and a kaleidoscope of images, interviews and audio (including a healthy ration of Nixon White House tapes) to tell the story of the man who “made” the previously second-tier Post. It’s beautifully composed, incredibly rich, and fully populated with people who knew him well.
Since Bradlee’s probably most famous for his relentless coverage of the Watergate scandal, the obvious reflex is to see this story as a mirror or a parable or, I don’t know, a reference to the current relationship between the Post and a president who seems singularly dedicated to obfuscating the truth. And that is there, no question. But that’s just one layer. It’s a fully rendered portrait of a man who loved journalism and became one of the most influential newsmakers of the 20th century.
The film doesn’t flinch from notions of conflict (Bradlee was one of the last civilians to see John Kennedy alive, and the entanglement between his family and the Kennedys is called out as a journalistic conflict with complete dispassion; it’s neither played down nor justified, just put on the record as a fact. Bradlee had a probably unprecedented level of access to a U.S. president, and there is no doubt this helped to propel his career forward. The complications extended to the personal, as both his second wife, Toni, and her twin sister, Mary, were among the many objects of the President’s sexual interest.) As bureau chief of Newsweek at the time, Bradlee understood that he was bartering access for coverage of Kennedy, and it was an uncomfortable tightrope even before the revelations about his wife and sister-in-law surfaced. Kennedy was known to revoke Bradlee’s access to him over coverage he didn’t like (Jackie and Toni ultimately begged them to let it go), but both men seemed fully cognizant of the conflicts and the need to navigate them in a way that served the truth and not just themselves.
This documentary is vital for its moment, lest we imagine “fake news” allegations are anything new (or that “fake news” never existed before, as the excruciating exposure of Janet Cooke’s fabricated Pulitzer Prize-winning story about an eight-year-old heroin addict shows). Ben Bradlee has already been immortalized in film (apparently he was totally beguiled by Jason Robards’ portrayal of him in All the President’s Men). Here we see a nonfiction view of the actual man, in richly detailed footage and his own tremendous self-awareness. We see workplace affairs that would raise hackles today (a quick shot of Charlie Rose will startle you into realizing that things we now consider criminal were relatively normative 40 years ago); we see failures and humiliations along with successes.
Bradlee referred to himself more than once as having had “a charmed life.” This is perhaps a felicitous perspective for a human being to have, a predisposition to feeling fortunate that can survive childhood polio, two divorces, a career filled with turmoil, a special-needs child with a difficult prognosis, and the constant scrutiny that comes with being a journalistic rainmaker. I’m not sure he had a charmed life. Based on this film, he had charm, for sure. And liveliness. But there seems to have been little accident involved in what he accomplished. The portrait painted by Maggio’s film is not about accidents of privilege or being in the right place at the right time: It’s one of epic tenacity and a deathless thirst for the truth.
By the same token, it’s easy to look at this film and see history repeating itself and feel like nothing will ever change. But perhaps that’s the wrong takeaway, and not what Bradlee himself would have pointed out. Perhaps the point is that just as there will always be corruption and dishonesty in the halls of power, a dedication to finding out the truth will always be more powerful in the end. No one has to be perfect or a saint to be truthful: Indeed, truth is often most powerful when it acknowledges that we’re all fallible. Colleagues noted that, when Nixon was finally removed from office, Bradlee’s directive to the Post staff was instant and vehement: “Don’t gloat. Don’t gloat.”
Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.