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Jeff Simon: Ben Bradlee doc lets us do the time warp again

Charlie Rose.

There he is with his hawkish integrity looming over his interview subject and finding openings for questions. His subject in this case is Ben Bradlee, late and legendary executive editor of the Washington Post. Rose is pushing him to get real, as he was always wont to do until The Reckoning banished him back to his living room.

The occasion of the Bradlee interview on Rose's PBS show was the release of Bradlee's memoir, whose less than stellar title was "A Good Life." It is, then, essentially a publicity interview -- the extreme Northern end of such things but still a publicity interview.

"Any great regret?" Rose searchingly asks.

Bradlee returns the searching context by staring at the ceiling while giving the matter serious thought. "Well, if I hurt Tony Bradlee I would regret that. If I hurt Jean Bradlee, I would regret that." "Former wives" interjects Charlie, to make sure that we out here at home have a scorecard to know all the players. "I don't know" says Ben." And then pauses at some length. "I don't regret very much." Then the old Paris correspondent flashes what he knows full well is a devilish smile and repeats the title of the famous Edith Piaf song "Je ne regrette rien."

Would that Charlie Rose could say that these days.

What we're talking about is the penultimate scene of the 90-minute HBO documentary film "The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Benjamin Bradlee." It will be shown for the first time on HBO at 8 p.m. Monday.

Opening down the road in Buffalo in January will be Steven Spielberg's "The Post" starring Tom Hanks as Bradlee and Meryl Street as former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. It's the story of how the Post decided to print the Pentagon Papers after Daniel Ellsberg first gave them to the New York Times so it could reveal their existence.

Bradlee, to put it mildly, is in season. "The Newspaperman" is a family portrait of Bradlee, full of home movies and tales. His son Quinn is co-producer. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is an executive producer and frequent talking head. Bradlee's widow -- third wife Sally Quinn -- is featured, especially at the end where she tells us how he just "slipped away" at the very end.

It is the documentary biography that Bradlee idolaters have probably been waiting for-- the perfect biographical addendum to "All the President's Men" for HBO circumstances.

As the presence of Rose at one of its most dramatic and meaningful points indicates, this is a TV documentary from deep in the center of a Time Warp. With apologies to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, we are, in fact, doing the Time Warp Again.

We're watching a doc whose soul can be found in a period when Rose, as interviewer, seems to epitomize high-media rectitude and not private behavioral recklessness. It's about a man who had his own version of that private irresponsibility from an era whose unquestioned star and cultural focal point was John F. Kennedy. At the time, JFK's behavioral irresponsibility seemed the definition of style and sophistication finally come to American public life after the middle-American Presbyterian grandfatherhood of the Eisenhowers was passing into history.

Sex is a prevalent subject in "The Newspaperman" -- not depictions of it certainly but rumors of it, speculations about it and representations of it as Bradlee was thought to embody so much that people had come to admire as his legend followed upon JFK's.

At one point, there's a startling moment featuring David Remnick, who won a Pulitzer at the Post and is the current editor of the New Yorker, one of the cardinal sites leading the inquiries into The Reckoning of male sexual misconduct in the 21st century.

What we see onscreen is photo of Bradlee, shirt open to reveal his very tan and shaved chest.

Says Remnick "I'll never forget. We were visiting friends at the beach, my wife and I. ... He's wearing a dress shirt and it's flying open and he's preposterously tan. And the hair's slicked back. And I realized with the curl of a finger from Ben Bradlee, it's quite possible my wife is out the door."

He seemed for a while an heir of Kennedy-era behavior which in our new century, isn't quite as easy to sanitize as it once was. (Ask Charlie Rose.)

One era's innocent fun is another's exploitation, humiliation and worse.

But then sex is only a context for some of "The Newspaperman," not its subject. But it exemplifies its anachronism. At its best, it asks us to examine what is anachronism and what is contemporary reality. At its worst, it doesn't bother asking.

It is about the Post -- and Bradlee -- as continuing beacons of what the press ought to do for its survival and for democracy's too.

The documentary is built around Bradlee in the soundtrack reading bits from his biographical memoir "A Good Life." The first thing we hear in his voice "It's been my experience that a lot of people lie in Washington. ... Reporters and editors are in the business of telling the truth. They're not in the business of giving people a free pass."

I don't think many people actually get a free pass in "The Newspaperman" but the cost of some of the passes distributed was reduced to rock bottom, basement prices.

When Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for her made-up story about an 8-year old heroin addict "Jimmy's World," we don't get a portrait of how it come from corruptions at both the Post AND the Pulitzer Prize (a subject long awaiting an exploration which no one in journalism is ever likely to do, lest they abolish all chances of winning one for themselves and their employers).

In Jeff Himmelman's Bradlee "portrait" "Yours in Truth" (Random House, 495 pages, $18 paper), we read this: "It was kind of Ben and Bob (Woodward) who pushed that story. David Maraniss told me ... It was clear that [Ben] loved her [Janet Cooke] and that story. It was a holy s--- story, and he was bored. He's easily bored. Ninety percent of the time, he was bored. Nothing was big enough for him."

I don't think HBO's "The Newspaperman" would be nearly big enough for him. "The Post," no doubt, will be more like it, especially if Streep wins an Oscar for playing Katharine Graham.

One of the delusions about journalism is that one must always swim in the very center of the story when in reality, a safe distance away is one extraordinarily valuable way to maintain the skepticism necessary for what Carl Bernstein has tersely called "the best obtainable version of the truth."

"The Post" may provide that. I appreciate "The Newspaperman" but I'm nothing if not skeptical. The doc crooks its little finger but I'm staying put.

It makes for a nice bedtime story for those who are already believers. But I don't think its time warp travels at all well -- no matter how much your eyes mist up when you see, the day before JFK is set to travel to Dallas, Jackie's horse bedevil him while he sits on the ground surrounded by family.

That Time Warp again.

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