'The Newspaperman' covers skills, errors of the great Ben Bradlee

Monday, 04 December 2017, 02:23:07 PM. ROEPER: The late journalist himself narrates the HBO documentary about his exciting life during some of the Washington Post's most historic moments.

We’re just a couple of weeks away from Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” in which Tom Hanks plays crusading newspaper editor Ben Bradlee, the dashing and truth-seeking force behind the Washington Post’s ascendance in the 1970s from also-ran provincial media outlet to a national force.

This won’t be the first time a major movie star with charisma to spare has played Bradlee in an important film. Some 45 years ago, Jason Robards won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his work as Bradlee in “All the President’s Men.”

In 2017, hundreds upon hundreds of talented editors continue to work at newspapers (print and online editions of course) and at newsgathering outlets that have never published a hard copy in their existence. They do important, valuable work — but I think it’s safe to say it might be a while before we see A-list actors playing another newspaper editor in a major motion picture. (Perry White doesn’t count.)

In director John Maggio’s HBO’s documentary “The Newspaperman,” which debuts Dec. 4, we learn more about the real Ben Bradlee, through archival footage and interviews with some of Bradlee’s closest associates, including Woodward and Bernstein — and we hear the story in Bradlee’s own voice, which is a little jarring at first given he died in October of 2014 at the age of 93.

Maggio, a veteran of the PBS series “American Experience,” made the unusual choice of using generous excerpts from the audiobook of Bradlee’s autobiography “A Good Life” — which was narrated by Bradlee himself.

As you might imagine, this makes “The Newspaperman” something of a hagiography. To be sure, Bradlee expresses regrets about some of the decisions he made in his personal and professional life, and he acknowledges a huge scandal that happened on his watch — but overall, this is the story of the (admittedly) exciting and admirable and difference-making life of arguably the most important news editor of the last half of the 20th century, as told by … the subject of the story.

After a solid but fairly routine examination of Bradlee’s early years, “The Newspaperman” spends quite a bit of time on Bradlee’s complicated (and most would say) journalistically compromising friendship with John and Jackie Kennedy, which started in the 1950s when Kennedy was a congressman and Bradlee was a rising star with Newsweek.

Even after Kennedy became president, Bradlee and then-wife Antoinette remained close to the Kennedys, joining them for private dinners, sailing trips, vacations. Of course Bradlee knew of some of Kennedy’s indiscretions — but, like the other journalists of the time who weren’t nearly as close to the president, he never reported on such stories.

It was a different time — but there’s NEVER been a time when it was journalistically appropriate for a major news broker to have such a close and confidential relationship with the primary subject of his coverage.

Of course, Bradlee faced no personal ethical dilemma when he led the Post’s charge to expose the decades of lies spat out by the government to justify the continuation of the Vietnam War. Even as Richard Nixon blustered and cursed and railed against the Post — threatening to make sure reporters from that damned newspaper would never be allowed to even set foot in the White House, and even as Bradlee and Washington Post publisher Kay Graham faced possible jail time for publishing the leaked Pentagon Papers, publish they did.

And this was just the precursor to Watergate, with Bradlee keeping a close watch on Woodward and Bernstein and making sure they wouldn’t get burned as they published story after story that eventually led to Nixon resigning.

We hear reminiscence and commentary from Bradlee’s former wife Sally Quinn; famous media figures Tina Brown, David Remnick and Jim Lehrer; Robert Redford (who played Woodward in “All the President’s Men”), even Henry Kissinger. Even when they’re criticizing Bradlee, there’s an overall tone of great respect for his talents and his leadership.

“The Newspaperman” does get into the biggest blemish on Bradlee’s career: the Janet Cooke scandal. In 1981, Cooke published a sensational and riveting piece for the Washington Post: a profile of an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy. Some of Cooke’s colleagues voiced concerns, but Bradlee brushed them aside and OK’d publication of the story, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize — and turned out to be pure fabrication.

Mostly, though, this is a solid tribute to one of the most commanding forces an old-school newsroom has ever seen.

★★★

HBO and Kunhardt Films present a documentary directed by John Maggio. Running time: 90 minutes. Premieres at 7 p.m. Monday on HBO.

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