'John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls': TV Review

A deferential and sometimes defensive profile.
5/28/2018

The HBO documentary serves as a biography, a salute and a eulogy to the ailing senator.

The most pushback that we see John McCain receive in the new HBO documentary, John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, is withdrawn as soon as it's put forth. "Senator," asks Steve Carell, then for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, "how do you reconcile the fact that you are one of the most vocal critics of pork-barrel politics, and yet while you were chairman of the commerce committee, that committee set a record for unauthorized appropriations?" Aboard the Straight Talk Express, McCain's media-friendly campaign bus for his 2000 presidential run, the ostensibly straight-shootin' Arizona politician is out of words. Carell rescues the bit, and McCain's maverick status, at least for the time being. "I'm just kidding," the comedian says, allowing the congressman to play along with a faux-embarrassed facepalm. "I don't even know what that means." 

Such moments of levity and dissent are rare in For Whom, a kind of pre-obituary for the 81-year-old McCain, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year. Directed by George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt, For Whom presents McCain probably exactly as the statesman would like to be remembered. In this deferential retelling, McCain is a lifelong public servant who only erred when he wasn't true to himself, with no ideological bent in his mission to make America exceptional again. It's certainly an inspirational portrait; it's also a blatant exercise in legacy management.

Shot in stoic shades of blue and gray the film looks as starched as a military officer's uniform  For Whom provides an overview of McCain's life, with extended segments devoted to the most familiar (albeit most interesting) chapters of his biography. The focal point of McCain's early life is the five years he spent as a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war, an excruciating tribulation that became the basis of the legislator's opposition to torture. Other formative experiences, such as his involvement in the Keating Five scandal in the late 1980s and his recent struggle with cancer, strengthened his resolve to fight for his signature issues, like campaign finance reform and health care. These connections suggest a lawmaker who learns from, perhaps even atones for, his mistakes. But we're left wondering how he has come to form his positions on issues that don't directly impact him, like reproductive and LGBT rights, especially since the most we glean about his private life is that he's never been a father who spent much time at home.

The defensive second half of For Whom is dedicated to absolving McCain of his biggest missteps and burnishing his (somewhat tarnished) reputation as a free-thinking Republican who thinks of bipartisanship as professional necessity, not a dirty word. A prickliness suffuses these scenes, in which McCain seems to argue that the buck stops ... over there. The decision to put Sarah Palin on the 2008 presidential ticket, for example, is blamed on advisers. (Palin is not among the impressive lineup of the doc's talking heads, which includes the past three presidents plus Hillary Clinton.) 

Still, For Whom is entirely convincing, even moving, in its intimation that McCain's passing will mark the alarming disappearance of the GOP's old guard. Trump is barely a blip in the film, but we see McCain battle against earlier strains of Trumpism, like a supporter telling him that then-candidate Barack Obama is "an Arab," or the conspiracy theory that American POWs were abandoned by their government and left to rot in Vietnam into the 1990s. 

For Whom's nostalgia for a more reasonable sort of Republican isn't entirely earned. McCain's hawkish foreign-policy views, for example, which barely get a mention, seem to assume that solutions are mainly to be found in an armory. But as the film's premiere on Memorial Day reminds us, too few commanders-in-chief in recent decades know as intimately as McCain does the horrors of war. We may differ from the senator in ideology, but we can all agree with the sentiment that fueled him into public service: There is much work to be done.

Premiere: Monday May 28, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)
Directors: George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt