‘Find out what the truth is, go get the story, get it first but get it right.’
From Bob Bradlee’s illustrious pursuits protecting free speech to his orchestration of journalism’s finest moments, HBO documentary The Newspaperman should be required viewing. Especially because it invokes parallels between the Watergate scandal and President Donald Trump’s administration.
The film is as much about Bradlee’s extraordinary life as it is about the underlying message of being courageous even in the face of high pressure and protecting the foundations of our democracy, namely the First Amendment.
Director John Maggio colorfully draws from various antecedents of the late reporter’s life with Bradlee’s own gravelly voice filling in at times via audio excerpts from his 1996 memoir, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures. It gives the documentary an intimate flair. Maggio’s documentary is also the first film to solely focus on the iconic reporter’s ascent into prominence as a reporter and the eventual executive editor at the Washington Post.
Close friends, colleagues, and even challengers of Bradlee, such as Henry Kissinger, bring some of the film’s most impactful moments as people like Tom Brokaw, Norman Lear, Tina Brown, Dan Graham, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein give a closer look into the type of man he was.
“When I first started looking at Bradlee, I didn’t know too much about him so I felt very lucky and fortunate he had written a memoir and happened to have recorded an audiobook,” Maggio told the Daily Dot.
The documentary came together after son Quinn Bradlee approached HBO CEO Richard Plepler about making a film on his late father. It was an immediate yes from the executive who saw great value in re-introducing the legacy of Ben Bradlee to upcoming generations, according to Quinn.
“Ben was never afraid of anything. He trusted his instincts and he had really good instincts as a journalist,” said Sally Quinn, Ben’s widow. “His whole goal in life was to get to the truth. Find out what the truth is, go get the story, get it first but get it right.”
For Quinn, who has covered the White House for nearly 50 years herself, today’s tumultuous political landscape is not that surprising.
“I think that what happens with politicians [is] they get in power and you know power is a real aphrodisiac in a lot of ways. They get in power and they misunderstand what it is and they will abuse it,” she said. “They feel invincible. They’re in a bubble in the White House. And so they think ‘We got all this power. We’re invincible.’”
It was this assumption we see much of Ben fighting against, first with the Pentagon Papers and then Watergate. Much of the modern mythology of the hard-hitting and wise newspaper editor can be traced back to Ben, who was credited with moving the Post from a local paper to a nationally acclaimed publication.
Although he did falter at moments, namely the infamous case of Janet Cooke who won a Pulitzer Prize for a fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict, Bradlee was a sharp leader who guided the newsroom with confidence even when it seemed like his back was up against the wall.
“There were a number of stories that could’ve been told but [I was] just trying to find the right balance and be critical. I wanted the film to feel like an extended conversation with Ben and the people who knew him and the people who challenged him,” said Maggio.
One of the most interesting parts of the film comes in the middle arc that centers on the close friendship Bradlee and his second wife, Antoinette “Tony” Pinchot, had with John F. Kennedy and Jackie.
The relationship was further complicated after Kennedy became president, drawing some ire and suspicion from his colleagues because of the potential conflict of interest. Maggio artfully weaves in home-movie footage and audio recordings of the foursome hanging out at Kennedy’s estates, sailing on a yacht, and partying that fully illustrates how deep this friendship went. The revelations in this portion of this film are hefty and eye-opening.
“[This friendship] lays bare Ben’s conflicts. It was an important moment for Ben to understand that he got too close,” said Maggio. “After Kennedy’s assassination [and] the tumults of the 1960s and the Vietnam War, he becomes a better journalist in a way I think.”
The Newspaperman is a candid and affectionate sharing of one man’s extraordinary accomplishments but also serves as a cautionary reminder that the truth should never be hidden or forgotten.