HBO’s John McCain Documentary Is Both Reverent and Candid

By
Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls is a pre-obituary for one of the most fascinating, maddening, and respected lawmakers in American history.

Directed and produced by Peter Kunhardt and his sons, George and Teddy – a team responsible for other politically themed HBO documentaries, including one about Ted Kennedy that debuted as the senator was battling a brain tumor — John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls arrives as McCain is publicly contending with the same affliction. It’s a movie that comes across as a final statement about who McCain was and how he would like to be remembered. As such, not surprisingly, it treats the maverick senator from Arizona with reverence and respect. But to its credit, the documentary does not gloss over McCain shortcomings, nor the errors he has made during his decades of public service as a politician and a soldier who famously became a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five-and-a-half years.

Airing on Memorial Day night, a scheduling choice imbued with at least two layers of subtext, For Whom the Bell Tolls opens with a quote from the Ernest Hemingway novel that gives the documentary its subtitle and that happens to be McCain’s favorite book: “The world is a fine place/And worth the fighting for/And I hate very much to leave it.” McCain later explains that he loves Robert Jordan, the soldier protagonist in For Whom the Bell Tolls, because he’s someone who makes sacrifices for things that are bigger than himself.

The documentary casts McCain as a Robert Jordan of sorts, drawing a line from his childhood as part of a proud military family to his experience in Vietnam, where he wound up in the prison camp dubbed the Hanoi Hilton and endured substantial physical and mental torture. There is footage of McCain in the hospital during that period — speaking to the camera in tears about how much he loves and misses his wife — that, like many details in this documentary, will make one’s vision go cloudy.

That wife — his first, Carol — appears in the documentary and talks about the uncertainty that she and their three oldest children had to live with during this period. She’s also quite candid about how devastating it was when, a few years after returning home, he left her upon meeting his second and current wife, Cindy, who is 17 years younger than him. “He was looking for a way to be young again and that was the end of that,” Carol says. “I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea what was going on. I was pretty much blindsided and it broke my heart.”

“We were all shocked and heartbroken,” says Sidney McCain, John and Carol’s daughter. “It caused quite a rift within the family.”

This is one of several moments when John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls reminds us that its subject is far from a saint. That’s true when it comes to his political career as well.

The documentary hits the primary highs and lows of his time in Congress and as a two-time presidential candidate, flashing back to the days of the Straight Talk Express in 2000 and his following campaign in 2008, when he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate — “That was a mistake,” he says — then lost to Barack Obama and his good friend Joe Biden.

In keeping with the accepted narrative about McCain, he is painted as someone who has sometimes been convinced by his staff and his party to act against his better instincts for the sake of allegedly improving his political odds. (The choice of Palin is an example of this — McCain wanted to put Lieberman on the ticket — but so is his statement of support for the display of the Confederate flag in 2000, when he was battling George W. Bush for the Republican nomination.) But he’s also depicted as an aisle crosser and compromiser, the kind of politician that has all but disappeared from the Republican party today. You don’t even have to listen to what anyone is saying in this documentary to pick up on that second thread. Just look at the politicians who appear on-camera to speak about McCain’s legacy. The vast majority of them — Biden, Obama, John Kerry, Bill and Hillary Clinton — are Democrats, with Lindsey Graham, George W. Bush, and people who worked for McCain representing the Republican side. (Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic senator who became an independent, is a symbol the middle of the spectrum, I suppose.)

The documentary doesn’t give McCain a total pass when it comes to his role in shaping the current, deplorable climate in Washington, either. Though it does make much of recent speeches McCain has delivered in which he has decried the populist and divisive spirit dominating political discourse, it also notes that he may be indirectly responsible for it. As New York Times columnist David Brooks puts it, “I don’t think he could have known this at the time, but in picking Sarah Palin, he basically took a disease that was running through the Republican party — not Palin herself, she’s a normal human being, but a disease that I’ll call anti-intellectualism, disrespect for facts — and he put it right at the center of the party.” Here’s a sentence that doesn’t get written very often on Twitter or in left-leaning publications like this one: David Brooks is right about this.

The name Donald Trump is never spoken in John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, but McCain’s disdain for what Trump’s presidency represents — reflected in footage of those recent speeches, including the one he famously gave on the Senate floor last July before refusing to support a Republican-backed health care bill — comes through loud and clear. McCain critics, however, will be quick to note that while his words have been powerful, he hasn’t wielded his legislative and voting strength as mightily as he might have to push back against Trump. (FiveThirtyEight’s breakdown of McCain’s voting record during this administration serves as a reminder that he has supported, among other things, the appointments of Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions, and Steven Mnuchin to Trump’s cabinet.)

Still, For Whom the Bell Tolls makes clear that McCain has been receptive to opposing viewpoints and able to maintain strong relationships even with those with whom he may not always agree, something that, as he notes, is fundamental to democracy. Footage of him during the 2008 election contradicting a voter who said that Obama is “an Arab” serves as testament to that. (“I thought that was an indication,” President Obama says of that moment, “of who John fundamentally was.”)

First and foremost, this documentary is as a moving farewell to a flawed, but still admirable, man. But it also comes across as another type of good-bye, one to the basic civility Americans once were able to take for granted in the political realm. John McCain: For Whom the Bell Toll is another reminder that this, too, is dying.

HBO’s John McCain Documentary Is Both Reverent and Candid