THE DOCUMENTARY “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee”
WHEN | WHERE Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT’S ABOUT This documentary is based on “A Good Life,” the 1995 memoir of Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991. The film often uses his own words, along with assists from friends and former colleagues such as Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, David Remnick, Don Graham, Tina Brown and Tom Brokaw to recount a good and extraordinary life: Boston childhood, Harvard, tour of duty as a Naval officer during World War II, the long tenure at the Post. Bradlee — who died in 2014 at age 93 — and his third wife, Sally Quinn, retired to the East End, where they famously restored Grey Gardens in East Hampton.
MY SAY In the argot of Bradlee’s glorious trade, “The Newspaperman” is a puff piece. That’s OK. Bradlee deserves one. He was the greatest editor of one of the world’s greatest newspapers who supervised a story that will forever grace the Valhalla of journalism.
But the problem with puffery, however well-meaning, is that it obscures subtler, more complicated, perhaps less complimentary truths. An example in this portrait: He was a close friend of John F. Kennedy while Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, and covered him for the magazine as well. Yet not one of Bradlee’s close friends quoted here can bring themselves to say how ineradicably wrong that was. Friends of presidents don’t cover those presidents for influential weekly news magazines. They recuse themselves. “The Newspaperman” doesn’t categorize this a professional failing as much as an instance of two Boston Brahmin bros hanging out. Both young, handsome, and married to beautiful women, how could they not hang out together? (It’s left to the always incorruptible Jim Lehrer to question the propriety of the relationship all these years later.)
Meanwhile, in a bone fide shocker, distinguished biographer (and onetime New York Times TV writer) Sally Bedell Smith says that during one cocktail party, JFK “pretty aggressively assaulted” — by that she means sexually — Bradlee’s second wife, Antoinette. There’s no follow-up other than the observation that even after learning of the assault, Bradlee’s adulation of Kennedy remained unshaken. “The Newspaperman” notes that Bradlee was involved in his own various dalliances while married.
A significant portion of “The Newspaperman” is devoted to Watergate. Unfortunately, it’s mostly boilerplate. Students of history, of the Post, even of “All the President’s Men” (the movie, with Jason Robards playing Bradlee, airs at 9:30 p.m. following this documentary) will learn nothing new. Instead, the best part of “The Newspaperman” is fleeting, personal and you have to wait for it, or him. Bradlee’s son Quinn, 35 — who has overcome disabilities related to velo-cardio-facial syndrome, a chromosomal disorder — turns up for this tribute. In his memoir, Bradlee wrote that “through tribulations that defied understanding . . . a valiant young man emerged — bright, funny, energetic and wise.” That’s self-evident in this portrait and — to paraphrase Yeats — perhaps Bradlee’s glory was not that he had such a career but such a son.
BOTTOM LINE Warm, genial portrait of a great editor, but not much else.