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NEW YORK, Dec 2, (AP): The White House is hostile to the press, public figures misbehave and a vital Washington Post is at the center of the national conversation. Think any of those things are new?
HBO’s film on the legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee proves otherwise. “The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee,” which debuts Monday at 8 p.m. ET on the cable network, feels strikingly contemporary as it follows the editor through his Boston upbringing, friendship with president John F. Kennedy and leadership through release of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal that took down former president Richard Nixon.
It’s part of a resurgence of attention for Bradlee, who is portrayed by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie “The Post.” The HBO project was instigated by Bradlee’s son Quinn, who suggested it to HBO.
“It’s hard not to fall in love with a guy like Ben — man or woman,” said film director John Maggio. “Because he just lived life in the moment — a very large life — and was there for some of the most important moments of the second half of the 20th Century.”
Maggio found the perfect narrator for most of the film in Bradlee himself. He died in 2014, but Maggio unearthed an audio book that Bradlee had recorded in 1994.
“When I heard that voice, that smoky, Brahmin growl of a voice, I knew I had to have it in the film,” he said. “The film took on a whole new character for me. So much of his personality was in his bearing, his presence. I wanted that to be in the film.”
During some of the Post’s battles with the Nixon administration, a clip of White House press secretary Ron Ziegler passes by and you half expect to hear the phrase “fake news.” The parallels are eerie.
Bradlee would likely have been conflicted covering Trump, said his widow, Sally Quinn. He would have relished a great story, and understood the need to operate with great care. He was also a patriot who fought in World War II, and would have been greatly concerned with what was happening in the White House, she said.
“Ben’s whole life was about getting to the truth,” she said. “When you look at it, it’s the lie that is the enemy of the people, and not the reporters and journalists who are trying to expose the lie.”
Quinn’s participation in making “The Newspaperman” essentially amounted to giving the first interview. She said she was pleased with the final product. “She was Ben’s wife, but she’s a journalist,” Maggio said, “and I really came to respect the distance she kept from me.”
The film doesn’t gloss over difficult or controversial aspects of Bradlee’s life. He was married three times, and the first two didn’t end pleasantly. The film spends considerable time on Janet Cooke’s fake story about a child heroin user, the biggest blot on his record at the Post.
Bradlee’s close friendship with Kennedy is explored, complete with footage of the two men and their wives enjoying a weekend together only days before the president’s assassination in 1963. It’s hard to conceive, in this era, of a president and a reporter with such a relationship; Bradlee was Washington bureau chief of Newsweek at the time.
Hard to imagine, and hard to justify, too: the film quotes veteran PBS journalist Jim Lehrer saying “you can’t be a friend of the president and a reporter, too.”
Quinn said both men had their eyes wide open to conflicts. Bradlee got scoops, and Kennedy probably got some favorable coverage. But she said Kennedy shunned Bradlee for one three-month period because he didn’t like something he wrote, until their wives got together and forced them to make peace.
Only after Kennedy’s death did Bradlee learned some startling news. Kennedy had slept with his then-wife Toni’s twin sister and had made a crude pass at Bradlee’s wife, too.
It was a far different era in terms of the attention paid by the press to personal lives. There’s a reminder toward the end of “The Newspaperman” when there’s a brief clip of Bradlee being interviewed by Charlie Rose, who just lost his job at PBS because of sexual misconduct allegations. In a public screening this week, Maggio said there was an audible gasp from the audience when Rose’s face is seen. The director said he would have recut the film if there were more extensive shots of Rose to avoid the distraction.
Quinn’s relationship with Bradlee had its share of drama, too. Then a Post reporter, she took a television job and prepared to move to New York because she realized she was in love with her then-married boss. She summoned the nerve to take him to lunch and confess how she felt, to learn he felt the same way.
Working with Bradlee, before they became a couple, gave Quinn a front-row seat to what made him special as an editor. He had a leadership quality that few possessed, she said.
“He walked through the room and he owned the room,” she said. “He owned the newsroom.”