The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee

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The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee

Runtime 89 minutes.
PG

This is a fascinating but zero-warts homage to the managing editor of The Washington Post who was made famous by the film All the President’s Men (1976). It’s told with interviews with all the fawning A-listers who admired him, like Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Jim Lehrer, John Dean, Norman Lear, Robert Redford, Sally Quinn, Tina Brown, Tom Brokaw and a myriad of others. There is nary a disparaging word (except from Henry Kissinger).

Upon entering Harvard, Bradlee was chosen at random to be included in The Grant Study that followed him and several of his 1940 classmates for 20 years. Interviews with the director of the study, George Valliant, are interspersed throughout the film.

Directed by John Maggio, the film includes some shocking scandalous stories of the apparently constantly randy President JFK, with whom Bradlee had an unprofessional best friend relationship since Bradlee’s paper was reporting on him constantly. One, relating to JFK’s relationship with Bradlee’s second wife, is beyond shocking.

Not interviewed are the two wives he callously dumped because he met someone younger and sexier. Not mentioned is the perjury he committed in falsely testifying in the 1965 trial of the murderer of his sister-in law, apparently protecting his deceased friend JFK in order not to reveal one of the President’s many sexual indiscretions. The movie does not compare that with his exuberance in attacking President Nixon’s indiscretions which would suggest a troubling hypocrisy.

Among the many incidents covered is the Janet Cook fiasco in which she won a Pulitzer Prize for phony stories about a drug addict that he published in The Post, for which he was partially responsible.

Asked at the end if he had any regrets, he thinks, then says, “I don’t know, if I hurt Tony Bradlee (wife #2, who broke up his first marriage; only to have her marriage to Bradlee broken up by Sally Quinn, 20 years younger) I would regret that. If I hurt Jean Saltonsal Bradlee (wife #1), I would regret that.” Then, thinking a little, he smiles and says, “I don’t know; I don’t regret very much,” and laughs.  According to PBS’s Jim Lehrer, “Bradlee always knew he was the luckiest SOB in the world.”

The film lost its way when it did not deal in more detail with the charm and bonhomie on the one hand and the inconsiderate, ruthless way he treated two loving wives and mothers of his children, his perjured testimony and his hypocrisy on the other hand. Because of Watergate he is known as a man of principle. But would a man of principle treat his wives and family so hardheartedly? It would have been a much better film had it dealt in detail with these moral chiaroscuros that were apparent in Bradlee instead of ignoring them to produce a simplistic paean to a complex man.

“The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee” aired December 4 on HBO.

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