John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls serves as both a living portrait and an insightful view of ‘The Maverick,’ who has helped mold our American politics and country forward.
The world is a fine place
And worth the fighting for
And I hate very much to leave it
— Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
This quote kick-starts the documentary of the influential US senator. The documentary is also titled For Whom the Bell Tolls because that is McCain’s favorite book. Mr. McCain has used the book as a guide for his life and after everything he has done and been through, it seemed like a fitting salute for the senator. In this hectic new world now known as the ‘Trump Era,’ HBO’s newest documentary of the Arizona senator is a breath of fresh air. John McCain has served our nation for more than 31 years of public service. Severing as a Republican throughout his tenure, Mr. McCain is still very well liked on both sides of the aisle. Due to his incredible bipartisanship on many issues, Mr. McCain has even been given the nickname as ‘The Maverick.’ His willingness to disagree with his party on certain issues continues to show why he stands out from other politicians in congress.
And in the documentary, For Whom the Bell Tolls, HBO forms a journalistically sound profile of a flawed, but ultimately admirable man. That is the difference that sets Mr. McCain apart for other politicians, is his ability to admit when he is wrong. Produced and directed by six-time Emmy winner Peter Kunhardt (HBO’s Jim: The James Foley Story, King in the Wilderness), along with Emmy winners George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt, portray an illuminating profile of McCain in an exclusive interview of one of the most influential forces in modern American politics. McCain has been through it all, during the Vietnam War, he became a naval aviator and flew ground-attack aircraft from aircraft carriers. While McCain was on a bombing mission over Hanoi in October 1967, he was shot down, seriously injured, and captured by the North Vietnamese.
“During that period of time, they decided to escalate the air war over North Vietnam. We started striking targets inside Hanoi. … A missile took the wing off the airplane, so I ejected. When I hit the airstream, it broke my arm and also my leg.” He was a prisoner of war (POW) until 1973. This time as a POW stripped away nearly 6 years of his life. During these years, McCain experienced episodes of torture and refused an out-of-sequence early repatriation offer. The wounds that McCain sustained during war have left him with lifelong physical disabilities. After he was freed by the North Vietnamese and returned home, McCain retired from the Navy in 1981, moved to Arizona and decided to enter into politics shortly after. For Whom the Bell Tolls includes a fascinating passage about McCain’s evolving views on the Vietnam War. The doc also digest’s his relationship with fellow veteran and political opposite John Kerry, while they were serving in congress. There’s also some blunt talk about the disintegration of McCain’s first marriage to Carol. “He was looking for a way to be young again,” Carol says of John’s affair with Cindy, who eventually became his second wife. “I was blindsided, and it broke my heart.”
The doc doesn’t shy away from the senator’s missteps, there’s a segment about the Keating Five scandal of the 1980s and McCain’s side of trying to be fully transparent during the scandal. He made a campaign finance reform one of his signature concerns, which eventually resulted in passage of the McCain–Feingold Act in 2002. Along with the intoxicating stories of McCain’s past, we are also greeted with lifelong friends, family members and fellow politicians as well. People like: his wife Cindy McCain, daughter Meghan McCain, former President Barack Obama, former Vice President and good friend Joe Biden, former President George W. Bush, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and former Senator Joe Lieberman. During the 90s’ we see McCain work to restore diplomatic relations with Vietnam and succeed. The doc then brings us to a heated battle during the 2000 South Carolina primary campaign, where McCain and Bush were fighting for the top spot. Bush narrowly defeated McCain in a stunning upset. After the primary, McCain regretted not speaking out against the Confederate flag when he was asked. He later apologized for not having called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse.
''I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary so, I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.'' Mr. McCain went on to say that his Confederate forefathers ''fought on the wrong side of American history.'' ''I don't believe their service, however distinguished, needs to be commemorated in a way that offends, that deeply hurts, people whose ancestors were once denied their freedom by my ancestors,'' he said. In Spring of 2005, McCain was a member of the bipartisan group known as the Gang of 14. They played a key role in reducing a crisis over judicial nominations. 'The Maverick' also talked about his regret towards choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate for the 2008 Presidential elections, whose selection proved to be disastrous. McCain instead wanted then-Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a former Democrat and now Independent. He was advised that it would not be a wise choice. In the end, McCain should have stuck with his gut. Sadly, in July of 2017 McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer but that hasn’t stopped the senator from continuing to fight and speak out. Most notably, his thumbs down last August to not repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). A snub to Trump. The documentary doesn’t mention Trump's name once and I believe that to be a good thing.
The current President tends to suck the life out of the subject matter, like a black hole. Take July 2015, as an example, when Trump mocked McCain for being a POW and stated that, “he’s not a war hero.” However, McCain has press-forward, demonstrating some of his toughest criticism towards the current Commander-in-chief. Example: “To our allies: bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values. Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.” McCain tweeting about his disapproval towards the current administration’s stance on trade and our allies. In the end, this documentary was all about McCain and his bipartisanship towards moving a country he dearly loves. I have deemed myself as an Independent when it comes to politics. There are people on both sides, Democrat and Republican, that I look up too. On the right, McCain has always been the one I’ve connected with most.
While, I haven’t agreed on all of his stances throughout his career, the fact that he has a fighting spirit, works very bipartisan in our congress and is completely transparent, are all the more reasons why I look up to him. It’s also a reminder that not so long ago, Democrats and Republicans actually were civil to and respected one another. For Whom the Bell Tolls, is an intimate portrait of one of the bravest American hearts beating for our nation. “I know this is a very vicious disease,” says McCain of his condition. “I greet every day with gratitude … “I’m also very aware none of us live forever. … I’m very grateful for the life I’ve been able to lead. And I greet the future with joy.” To ‘The Maverick’ that keeps on fighting, we applaud you and your service Mr. McCain. Or as Mr. Obama better put it: “John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I've ever known. Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John.” Today, these bells keep on ringing.
John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls is Not Rated (NR).