The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee Review
Director: John Maggio
Starring: Tom Brokaw, Sally Quinn, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward
Narrator: Ben Bradlee
Review by Michael Walls-Kelly
“This is what I do best. And this is a hell of a story.”
Ben Bradlee is absolutely the first person I think of when I think of a “Newspaperman.” He embodies the down-to-earth tenacity of a reporter combined with an inflated, almost eye-rolling sense of purpose. If you manage to keep your cynicism in check, the latter aspect of his personality can definitely be intoxicating.
The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee is exactly what it says on the tin. A look into the life of a man who was revered and reviled in his time and has since been elevated to a legendary status. He and his staff changed the course of United States history. But we learn about Bradlee as a man as much as a myth. We learn about his youth, his time in the Navy, his friendship with John F. Kennedy and his relationships with his wives. We also delve into the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate Scandal, and the Janet Cooke incident.
The documentary has a great combination of narration and talking head interviews. Because of Bradlee’s stature, the interviewee’s are all particularly important and engaging. Tom Brokaw, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Sally Quinn and Robert Redford, as well as others who worked with him at The Washington Post. The narration couldn’t get any better. It’s by Ben Bradlee himself, recorded for the audiobook of his memoir.
Bradlee’s voice, that of a gravelly Boston boy with a Bogart tinge, has the exact right amount of authority, emphasis, and playfulness to deliver the story. Which, I guess, it should, considering it’s his story. Hearing him speak and seeing photos and footage of the man himself showed me exactly how perfect Jason Robards was as Bradlee in All the President’s Men. Both the actor and newspaperman stood out in their field, and both had the kind of authority you immediately trusted.
All the President’s Men leads me to my least favourite stretch of the documentary, which is arguably its most important stretch. Bradlee, Woodward, Bernstein and the staff at The Washington Post were all instrumental in President Richard Nixon resigning. It’s a huge moment in history and almost certainly the defining moment in most of their lives. Unfortunately, it’s also an incredibly well-known moment. I love All the President’s Men, and I’ve seen it dozens of times, the section in The Newspaperman didn’t add much to the story I knew already, so it felt for like a perfunctory rehash.
The more interesting aspects of the documentary were about Bradlee’s relationship with his family and friends. Seeing how intimate he was with the Kennedys, how the President’s assassination affected him, was illuminating. I also appreciated the bookended stories about Bradlee’s relationship with his father and Bradlee’s relationship with his youngest son, Quinn. It humanized a man who, as a legend, usually comes off as “above” those types of things.
Another aspect that I appreciated, and something that made me question the existence of the documentary itself, were the mentions of Katharine Graham. Kay Graham was the owner of The Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Two of the most important journalistic events of the 20th Century. She had a much more prominent role in the Watergate reporting than I knew from All the President’s Men. Her character was sadly cut and consolidated. Even one of the standout moments in the film, a reporter questioning why the Post has a monopoly on the story, was basically a Kay Graham question.
So did we really need another documentary about a powerful, confident man who keeps marrying younger women and is regarded as a genius? Couldn’t we have gotten a documentary about Kay Graham, a story that’s just as interesting and has been told less? Maybe. Ben Bradlee is an intriguing enough figure that it’s worth putting up with the overall sameness of the biographical documentary genre. The historical importance and the fact that we get to hear the story told in his own words tips it over the edge.
Luckily Steven Spielberg’s film, The Post, is being released on December 22. It heavily involves Kay Graham, played by Meryl Streep, and Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks. I don’t think Hanks, as good as he is, could replace Robards in my mind as the quintessential Ben Bradlee, but now that I’ve seen The Newspaperman, Bradlee himself might have.
Verdict: Watch it. If you’re into documentaries about interesting people, this is a great example of one done well. It delivers the facts and doesn’t overstay its welcome, something I’m sure a reporter like Bradlee would be happy about. If you’ve seen All the President’s Men as much as I have, there are sections that may drag a bit, but the film moves at a quick enough clip that it isn’t that noticeable. Truly, the only absolute negative of The Newspaperman is the fact that Henry Kissinger is interviewed and I had to look at his evil, monster face.