The longtime Arizona Senator and military hero, Senator John McCain, is celebrated in the HBO documentary, John McCain: For Whom The Bells Toll.
I hesitate to use the word celebrated but given the senator’s cancer diagnosis, it’s a better term to use than “profile.” Family, friends, and colleagues share their thoughts on McCain’s life and work habits in his bittersweet documentary. In airing the documentary while he’s still alive, it gives the senator an opportunity to hear what people say. One could term it as a documentary wake so to speak.
Taking its subtitle from McCain’s favorite Ernest Hemingway book, it’s no surprise to see the documentary start with a quote from the 1940 book. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it,” Hemingway says in chapter 43. The book essentially serves as McCain’s guide to living. It also serves as a stark reminder of how much has changed in politics.
McCain is a war hero. He was always destined to be a war hero but not in the way he would have suspected. Following his graduation from the Naval Academy, McCain would join the family legacy. Both his father and grandfather had served as four-star admirals in the Navy so of course, he would follow in their footsteps. Life had other plans for McCain. In 1967, McCain was shot down over Hanoi and would remain a prisoner of war until 1973. The injuries he suffered during this time were permanent.
McCain would stay in the Navy until retiring in 1981. Around the time of retirement, his father, John McCain Jr. would pass away. The two of them surprisingly were not close but he was proud of his dad and grandfather.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who served with McCain in the Senate, is a fellow Vietnam veteran. The two were on different paths when it came to Vietnam. Kerry’s experience would lead him to take on a role as an anti-war activist. Kerry talks at length about McCain. Former Vice President Joe Biden was another colleague in the Senate and talked about working with McCain.
It wouldn’t be a documentary of McCain without discussing either the 2000 or 2008 presidential campaigns. Former President George W. Bush went on to defeat McCain in the Republican primary. It wasn’t without disgust. Many negative ads attacking McCain ran during the South Carolina primary with Bush denying his campaign’s involvement. There’s footage of McCain discussing his personal feelings on the Confederate flag following the campaign.
The documentary gets into discussing what may have been one of the single-worst decisions during the 2008 campaign: the nomination of Sarah Palin as Vice President. People within the McCain campaign advised against it but Palin may have been a way to attract conservative members of the GOP base.
Obama makes one of his few appearances in the documentary to discuss the campaign tone. McCain himself would defend the future president during a town hall appearance, much to the dismay of those in attendance. The boos are clearly heard.
“I have to tell you,” McCain responded to a woman. “Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”
Come September 16, 2008, everything changed. This was the day the economy collapsed. Nothing is mentioned of the cancellation of his appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
The senator was diagnosed with the same cancer that killed Sen. Ted Kennedy. This was back in July 2017. The common time table is 14-15 months left to live after such diagnosis. This was something suspected by his wife, Cindy, and longtime McCain collaborator Mark Salter.
It’s because of the cancer diagnosis that we have the documentary in the first place. The Emmy-winning filmmakers do a superb job with the finished product. In addition to original interviews, footage is drawn from family videos, speeches, archived interviews and news footage.
Shy of two hours, John McCain: For Whom The Bells Toll is a documentary worthy of celebrating a statesman and military hero.
DIRECTORS: Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt, and Teddy Kunhardt
FEATURING: John McCain, Cindy McCain, Meghan McCain, Mark Salter, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Grant Woods, Henry Kissinger
John McCain: For Whom The Bells Toll premiered exclusively HBO on May 28, 2018. The HBO original documentary is also available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO and partners’ streaming portals.