There’s nothing particularly flashy or exotic about this mini HBO docu, beyond documenting a life worthy of notice: Helen Thomas, the octogenarian wire reporter-turned-columnist who has covered nine U.S. presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy. With the mainstream press under perpetual siege and newspapers in financial decline, Thomas’ simple conversation regarding the press’ watchdog role is every bit as valuable as her perspective, representing someone who quite literally served as a witness to U.S history from a front-row seat.
Produced and directed by President Kennedy’s niece Rory Kennedy, the documentary appropriately if somewhat misleadingly opens with Thomas directing tough questions at the current President Bush. “Appropriately” because it highlights Thomas’ willingness to challenge the commander in chief; “misleading” in that her relationship with the current administration has been so inordinately contentious that the Bush team has ignored her at press conferences. (Since segueing into a columnist role, Thomas has done little to hide her disdain for Bush, calling him perhaps the U.S.’ worst president
Chronicling Thomas’ life could easily have encompassed more time, what with its implications about women penetrating the press fraternity and her insider’s ruminations about the foibles of former presidents. The relatively brief 40-minute duration, however, feels about right — enough to sprinkle tidbits about Thomas’ interactions with Reagan, Nixon and Johnson without belaboring any of them, while giving the veteran scribe an opportunity to articulate her view of the reporter’s role — never a friend to those she covers, committed to holding presidents accountable, yet always respectful of the office, if not its occupant.
Presidents, Thomas explains, must be subject to scrutiny from the press corps and, when necessary, brought “down to size.” Thomas is not a large woman, but this elegantly understated look at an extraordinary career does nothing to diminish her stature.