Later this month, the story of the Washington Post and its role in the historic release of the Pentagon Papers will hit the big screen in The Post. But before everyone's parents buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s movie about this watershed moment for freedom of the press and the First Amendment, another film about the key players in that story—not to mention Watergate, the Kennedy presidency, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and more—will hit the small screen.
The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee, which premieres December 4 on HBO, tells the story of the late, now-legendary editor of the Washington Post, from his days as a confidant of John and Jackie Kennedy to his time as a thorn in the side of Nixon’s presidency.
The film makes marvelous use of Bradlee’s own voice—taking great advantage of a private recording he made of his memoir—as well as interviews with his friends and enemies, including Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Henry Kissinger, his wife, fellow Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn, Tina Brown, and Robert Redford, to create a stunning document of a great American life.
Here, director John Maggio explains why, even though Bradlee died in 2014, his impact is still so very important today.
Ben Bradlee’s been portrayed on screen before, most notably by Jason Robards in All The President’s Men and Tom Hanks in the upcoming The Post. What made you want to film a documentary about a guy we seemingly know so much about already?
When I was approached by HBO to make this film, we were in the middle of the last presidential campaign. At the time, we thought Hillary Clinton would be elected and that we knew what was happening. I was interested in Bradlee because of
From left: Katharine Graham, Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward, Howard Simons, and Bradlee in Bradlee’s office at The Washington Post on April 30, 1973.
The fact that you get to use his own voice to tell the story is really something. How did you know these tapes existed? You’d have had a totally different movie without them.
Early on, the family said they’d give me access to the tapes he had made when he was writing his memoir, which he would dictate to a writing assistant. What I didn’t realize is that he had recorded an abridged version of his memoir—it wasn’t widely distributed—and when I discovered that, I was blown away. It really does bring him to life; his husky, Boston Brahmin voice is so distinctive. It belongs in the Mount Rushmore of voices. I realized with the tapes, I could make this feel like an extended conversation between Ben and the people who knew him.
How did you get Bradlee’s family to cooperate?
Bradlee with Sally Quinn in the 1970s.
First of all, [his wife] Sally Quinn is incredibly intimidating. She’s a legendary journalistic and social figure, so there’s some trepidation there. But the key is to Sally is that at her core she’s a really fine journalist. She has such a great sense of narrative and storytelling, so my approach was as a journalist who wanted to tell a story honestly and with the kind of running room that Ben used to give his reporters.
I spent hours with her—six hours on camera with her, and she offered me her beautiful home to do other interviews in—but she didn’t see the film until the end. She was stunned, she told me, because of its honesty. There’s some tough stuff in there, but she’s come to love the film.
There are so many Bradlee stories that feel well-worn at this point. Who offered the most surprising takes on him?
Some of these folks are notoriously
What was the greatest thing you heard about him that you didn’t already know?
I think the level of intimacy he had with JFK. We’ve all heard stories about Kennedy, but I felt like we were unearthing things through Ben’s eyes. I think he really did want to be part of the Kennedy mythology and it really did corrupt his objectivity. There’s a moment in the section of the movie about the Kennedys when they’re all on a boat for JFK’s 46th birthday. You’re transported to that moment, and within that footage—which we’ve all seen a million times—you’re always focused on Kennedy until you look a bit to the left and there’s Ben Bradlee.
Bradlee with President John F. Kennedy, circa 1960.
You were working on this during the election. Did you at some point realize that a story about the Washington Post and defense of the First Amendment would be so timely?
In our editing room, it felt huge. It
In the same month that your movie is out, The Post will hit theaters. They really do work as companion pieces.
I think both of these films will help one another. If you get to see my film first, you’re going to understand Bradlee so much better.