Helen Thomas, often dubbed the “First Lady of the Press,” has been part of the White House Press Corps for almost 60 years, covering nine presidents and bearing witness to Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra and both wars in Iraq, and yet HBO’s new documentary on the alternately celebrated and reviled journalist, Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House, barely runs for 38 minutes and hardly scratches the surface of what it means to blaze a trail for women in a male-dominated profession or be a voice of dissent in American politics, both of which Thomas has done with astounding flair, grace and guilelessness—even when she’s interrupting the most powerful man in the world. Directed by Rory Kennedy, niece of John F. Kennedy (the first president Thomas covered in the White House), Thank You is more of an interview than an objective documentary and, comprised as it is of discussions solely with Thomas interspersed with clips and photographs, about as incisive as a one-on-one sit-down with Barbara Walters.
The doc’s audience would have been better served with the perspectives of, if not those who deem her a leftist annoyance, fellow female journalists for which she has helped pave the way, her press corps colleagues or even former presidents—access to which Kennedy could no doubt have secured. There are moments when Kennedy stumbles upon revelations, like when Thomas—who was called “nosy” and “inquisitive” as a child and whose parents were Syrian émigrés who couldn’t read or write—suggests that the right wing denied Bill Clinton his legitimacy, the “affable” but “distant” Ronald Reagan was a puppet to his advisors, and that the guilt she and others felt over having not broken the Watergate scandal pushed her to question everything leading up to and following the Iraq War while her associates tossed George W. Bush softballs, but Kennedy fails to abide by one of Thomas’s key tenets of journalism: always ask a follow-up question.
An entire documentary could be made about Thomas’s relationship to Bush, who she claims refuses to take follow-ups and admits to having called “the worst president in American history.” In the first days of his presidency, Thomas defiantly challenged Bush on his views on the separation of church and state and triumphantly asked Dana Perino, during her first months as White House Press Secretary, if she knew how many Iraqi civilians had died since the start of the war (Perino had just condescendingly admonished Thomas for abusing her “front row position”). Thank You is part of the HBO Documentary Films summer series, which, according to the network, “features a provocative new film every Monday night,” but there’s nothing provocative about a documentary that, unlike its subject, refuses to ask tough questions or dig below the surface.