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November 16, 2018

HBO’s John McCain documentary is a love letter to the ailing senator

May 28, 2018
HBO’s “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls” premieres on the cable network on Memorial Day. (Clair Popkin/AP)

No man is an island, according to the opening line of the poem that inspired the title of John McCain’s favorite book.

The 81-year-old politician has often cited Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” as a literary work that galvanized his life of service.




Now a new HBO documentary about the Republican — diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer last summer — shows how the John Donne poem behind the book’s title also applies to the six-term senator.

Relatives, Capitol Hill colleagues, former presidents and political adversaries all speak in impassioned terms as they extol the war hero and presidential also-ran.

HBO’s “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls” premieres on the cable network on Memorial Day.

The nearly two-hour affair, produced and directed by six-time Emmy winner Peter Kunhardt, along with his sons, Emmy winners George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt, is filled with kind words and kudos for the quick-tempered man dubbed “the maverick.”

Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton join political luminaries Henry Kissinger, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham in speaking fondly of the terminally ill lawmaker.

Even McCain himself joins the chorus in singing his praises — and paints himself as the opposite of the current occupant of the White House.

“I have lived an honorable life, and I am proud of my life,” he says as he looks into the camera.

Even McCain joins the chorus in singing his praises in the film — and paints himself as the opposite of Trump.
Even McCain joins the chorus in singing his praises in the film — and paints himself as the opposite of Trump. (TECH. SGT. JEFFREY ALLEN/HBO Documentary Films)

There is little new in the film, but the Kunhardts do a fine job illustrating McCain’s early life and his sense of duty following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by joining the Navy.

His time as a prisoner of war, including two years spent in solitary confinement in the “Hanoi Hilton,” after being shot down over Vietnam in 1967, show the valor and dedication the film hopes to convey as its focus.

Despite President Trump’s assertions in 2015 that McCain is “not a war hero,” the young Navy pilot’s self-sacrifice in refusing release is nothing if not honorable.

The documentary highlights occasional striking moments of defiance when McCain bucked his own party, earning his “maverick” title as a proponent of campaign finance reform and palling around with opponents from across the aisle.

Last year, soon after his diagnosis, McCain drew gasps from his colleagues on the Senate floor as he held out his right arm and thrust his thumb down.

With a flick of his wrist, he delivered the death blow to the GOP’s 11th-hour effort to repeal Obamacare.

But his support of military action across the decades is glossed over and buried beneath the glowing portrayal of the Arizona senator’s accomplishments.




McCain, seated on a patio behind his idyllic Sedona home, appears at ease and speaks candidly to the camera, admitting to mistakes and missteps he feels he made throughout his long career on Capitol Hill.

While McCain has remained in Arizona recovering from surgery and spending time with his family, his presence has been felt in Washington.
While McCain has remained in Arizona recovering from surgery and spending time with his family, his presence has been felt in Washington. (TECH. SGT. JEFFREY ALLEN/HBO Documentary Films)

The movie does touch on McCain’s less-than-glamorous moments, including his two failed presidential runs.

He also publicly expresses regret for one of his most criticized campaign moves — picking then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 — a choice that has had implications far beyond his loss.

“I should have said: ‘Look, Joe Lieberman is my best friend, we should take him,” the ailing lawmaker admits. “But I was persuaded by my political advisers it would be harmful, and that was another mistake that I made.”

The confession is sincere, if not entirely surprising.

Lieberman, a former senator from Connecticut and a Democrat-turned-independent, has remained one of McCain’s closest friends.

New York Times columnist David Brooks absolves the two-time White House wannabe of the sin of unleashing “a disease that was running through the Republican Party — anti-intellectualism, disrespect for facts — and (putting) it right at the center of the party.”

“I don’t think he could have known it at the time,” Brooks says.

McCain, even before his diagnosis, attempted to reinvent himself as a straight-shooting elder statesman unafraid to take a stand against Trump.

McCain spent two years in solitary confinement while a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton."
McCain spent two years in solitary confinement while a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton.” (HBO Documentary Films)

But Trump barely gets a mention in the film.

While McCain has remained in Arizona in recent months, recovering from surgery and spending time with his family, his presence has been felt in Washington.

His adversarial stance against the Trump administration was renewed as the POW and torture victim voiced his displeasure with the appointment of CIA director Gina Haspel.

McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, opposed the pick over Haspel’s past involvement in the CIA’s controversial interrogation tactics.

His stance led a Trump aide to dismiss him as he was “dying anyway.”

His friends, who the film makes clear are many, feel differently.

“John, throughout his life, has been heroic. If he showed us how to live,” said Grant Woods, McCain’s former chief of staff, “he’s also showing us how to die.”




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