In the history of the newspaper business, there are few names that could stand alongside that of Ben Bradlee, the former executive editor of The Washington Post. Bradlee turned The Post into one of the world’s most respect newspapers as the reporters working under Bradlee worked tirelessly on the Watergate scandal, a scandal that would bring down the President of the United States. The life and work of Ben Bradlee is the subject of a new HBO documentary, The Newspaper Man: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee from director John Maggio. As biographical documentaries go, The Newspaper Man is well-crafted but by-the-numbers in its use of interviews to aid a chronological telling of Ben Bradlee’s life in a brief 90 minutes. Even if it lacks in originality in its form, The Newspaper Man is a nice tribute to Bradlee’s career with enough juicy tidbits that flavor the story.
The Newspaper Man unfolds starting with Bradlee’s youth and his service in World War II. Later, he would become a reporter for Newsweek. It’s around this point in Bradlee’s life that The Newspaper Man starts to get interesting. Ben Bradlee and his wife Antoinette “Tony” Pinchot were close friends with John F. and Jackie Kennedy, the two couples often spending down time together with sometimes the president slipping Bradlee a hot scoop. These details into Bradlee’s private life and how it veered dangerously close into his personal life makes for some of the most interesting aspects of the documentary, forcing the audience to question whether or not a friendship with a powerful politician could hamper journalistic principles.
However, the assassination of JFK would happen in 1963 and a grief-stricken Bradlee would have to face some unflatter revelations about his friend, including the fact that Kennedy was carrying out an affair with Bradlee’s sister-in-law, Mary Pinchot Meyer. In some ways, it seems that the larger ethical questions surrounding Bradlee’s friendship with the Kennedys was resolved by the tragic assassination. Questions about his private life bleeding over into his personal life would cease, and Bradlee would become a managing editor at The Washington Post before becoming the executive editor in 1968.
Of course, Bradlee’s finest hour as the face of The Washington Post would come following a burglary in 1972 at the Watergate Hotel. Two young reporters working on the case, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, would crack open a bungled conspiracy that led straight to the White House, resulting in the resignation of Richard Nixon. Woodward and Bernstein, along with various others icons of journalism, appear in The Newspaper Man to provide their accounts of steps that led bringing down Nixon, though it should be said that this aspect of the documentary along with its examination of the Supreme Court case surrounding the Pentagon Papers feels like a CliffsNotes version of these landmark moments in American history. Putting in a mildly positive light would be to say that they’re informative but not particularly full of depth.
The Newspaper Man follows Bradlee’s life after Watergate from scandals to retirement to his death in 2014, and how the funeral for a newspaper editor took on the sense of a state funeral for a dignitary who had passed on. Anyone looking for a truly in-depth examination of Ben Bradlee would be better suited to find his memoirs or another printed biography that can take more time to explore the many aspects of this incredible life in journalism. However, for a 90-minute documentary, The Newspaper Man does fine work in a short time frame. But this is a documentary that is simply scratching the surface. If you’re admirer of Ben Bradlee and all that he stood for, you’re going to want to keep digging.