“It’s been my experience that people lie – a lot of people lie in Washington. They have no reverence for the truth,” remarks Ben Bradlee in his 1996 memoir, A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures.
“Reporters and editors are in the business to tell the truth,” the longtime Washington Post editor says. “They’re not in the business of giving people free passage.”
It’s a sentiment that director John Maggio says is vital in the modern era of vitriolic and visceral attacks on the free press.
“Ben’s life was to always challenge authority,” says Maggio, who is tackling Bradlee’s life in HBO’s forthcoming doc The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee.
When the director was approached by friend and executive producer Peter Kunhardt (The Road to 9/11, Living with Lincoln) for the project, he realized Bradlee was not only an iconic journalist — his career spanned many of the critical moments of the 20th century.
Working as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek in the 1950s, Bradlee reported from the frontlines of wars in the Middle East. In Washington, he befriended Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy and later gained unprecedented access to the White House. By the 1970s, he had transformed the Washington Post from a local paper into a national powerhouse, publishing the Pentagon Papers and breaking story after story on the Watergate scandal involving former Republican president Richard Nixon.
The doc traces Bradlee’s life from a young Boston boy stricken with polio, to becoming one of the most pioneering and iconic journalistic figures of the century.
Many of the pivotal moments in Bradlee’s life were detailed in his memoirs, which he recorded for an audiobook. Maggio was able to obtain the rights for the book from publisher Simon & Schuster. Upon hearing Bradlee’s voice for the first time, Maggio says he was taken away by his “smokey Brahmin accent.”
“If Mount Rushmore had sound, his voice would be up there.”
During the year and a half it took for Maggio and his team to piece the documentary together, the director says he tried to make the movie feel cinematic, as opposed to a recreation of the memoir.
As the film points out, Bradlee was a longtime friend of Kennedy. Through making the doc, Maggio started to realize how often Bradlee could often be found in Kennedy’s proximity.
“It didn’t take a lot of digging,” he notes, to find Bradlee and Kennedy in frame. The pair’s relationship is a significant focus of the doc, as well as Bradlee’s interactions with Richard Nixon.
In 2014, Kunhardt directed and executive produced Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words for HBO, which required him to go through Nixon’s tapes with a fine-tooth comb. Maggio says Kunhardt’s knowledge of the Nixon tapes gave him the awareness of how to dig out the bits of audio where the president mentioned Bradlee or The Washington Post.
Maggio also says his team of archival researchers pored over every Watergate story, including the scores of material from broadcasters such as CBS and NBC that were avidly covering the unfolding scandal.
Many of the photos of Bradlee used in the documentary were provided by his son, Ben Bradlee Jr. and his third wife, journalist Quinn Bradlee. She also supplied his medical records from a research test he participated in while at Harvard.
It was a wealth of information that Maggio says he has never come across while making his other docs.
“That was a great find and something Ben had included in his memoirs.”
And while the documentary takes heavily from Bradlee’s own story, Maggio also infuses The Newspaperman with interviews of those closest to the editor, as well as those he challenged.
Maggio chatted with journalists Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Quinn Bradlee and Tom Brokaw; as well as Henry Kissinger and Nixon counsel John Dean; writer Norman Lear; and actor/director Robert Redford for the doc.
“Everybody, even Kissinger, was willing to sit down and really be interrogated. I really wanted to get at who Ben was.”
For Maggio, getting people to talk about Bradlee was easy – something he credits to Bradlee’s legacy and the respect he garnered, even from his adversaries.
He wonders what Bradlee would think about the current U.S. administration and how the press should cover the constant stream of stories coming from the White House. It was something on his mind when putting the film together.
“It’s a delicate balance of alchemy of biography, but also of having a bigger message.”
The documentary is a co-pro of HBO and Kunhardt Films and is executive produced by Kunhardt and Richard Cohen; produced by Teddy Kunhardt and George Kunhardt; co-produced by Sophie Goulding and Quinn Bradlee. For HBO the senior producer is Jacqueline Glover and executive producer Sheila Nevins.
The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee premieres on HBO Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.