HBO’s ‘John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is as candid as the maverick himself

HBO's documentary film "John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls," which debuts on Memorial Day, explores the life and career of war hero and Arizona senator John McCain.
(Clair Popkin / AP)
Television Critic

Valor, stubborn conviction and sacrifice are themes repeated throughout “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls,” HBO’s documentary memorializing the life and career of the Vietnam War hero and six-time Arizona senator.

The 81-year-old, who revealed this year that he’d been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, is interviewed throughout the film, as are his family and some of his bitterest political rivals.

Their perspectives are interwoven with footage from key moments throughout his life – McCain the wounded POW speaking on camera from Hanoi, the hero limping off the plane onto American soil after his release, the formidable challenger of George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries, the defeated party during Barack Obama’s historic 2008 win.


The film, which premieres on Memorial Day, regards McCain with a reverence that will surely be contested by those who disagree with his politics, voting record, snarky comments on the Senate floor, unvarnished criticism of colleagues who’ve “abandoned their values” or his proclivity to curse in public more than any other senior senator.

But in showing a man whose career has been guided by principle, advanced by fearlessness and derailed when his political ambitions eclipsed what he knew to be right, the film says as much about Washington’s maverick as it does about the impotent Congress he’s leaving behind.

The beauty of this documentary is’s one place on TV where the attention-seeking president does not steal the narrative.

Directed by the father-and-sons team of Peter, Teddy and George Kunhardt (Peter is behind a number of award-winning documentaries about noted political figures, including one on Sen. Ted Kennedy, who succumbed to brain cancer), the film’s collection of interviewees speaks to McCain’s legacy of principle above party.

Bill Clinton remembers the crucial and bipartisan role McCain played during his presidency in normalizing relations with Vietnam. Barack Obama speaks about the decency and bravery displayed when McCain corrected his own Republican supporters who spoke fearfully about Obama the “Arab” terrorist. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and McCain’s bitter opponent in 2000, George W. Bush, even appear here.

Equally as notable is the absence of other high-ranking Republicans speaking on record for the film. Many in the party have distanced themselves from McCain since his criticisms of the White House didn’t stop with Obama, but in fact escalated after the 2016 election.


McCain has expressed alarm over the direction of his party and its leadership’s “turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism,” the “unwillingness to separate truth from lies” and that more and more of his “fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”

In the HBO production it’s mostly up to Sen. Lindsey Graham, the other sitting Republican senator who still dares to vote across party lines, to represent. And in McCain fashion, he curses: “He can be an [expletive] one minute, and your dearest friend the next,” he says of his old friend, “but you always know he loves you.”

The beauty of this documentary is that, regardless of the ongoing war of words between McCain and the White House, it’s one place on TV where the attention-seeking president does not steal the narrative. In fact, he is never mentioned here.

It’s about McCain, and the senator is often telling his own story.

He recounts how he came from a long line of military men dating back to the Revolutionary War. His father and grandfather were four-star admirals, and McCain was a Navy airman when he was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, then held captive for 5 ½ years.

McCain says of being tortured, “I thought I was going to die… [so] I wrote out a war crimes confession, and I will be ashamed about that until the day I die.”

The injuries he sustained from the ordeal left him unable to achieve his goals in the military, so he turned his ambitions toward a career in politics. In 1982, Arizona voted him into the House of Representatives, and he was elected to his first of six Senate terms four years later.

In the film, which is named after McCain’s favorite novel, he admits he has a “short temper,” laments his involvement in the 1989 “Keating Five” savings-and-loan scandal, apologizes for playing politics with the Confederate flag during the 2000 primary, and expresses regret for picking Sarah Palin as a running mate when he should have followed his instincts (not the advice of an advisor) and chosen then-Sen. Lieberman.

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks says, “I don’t think he could have known this at the time, but by 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.”

Likely not the legacy McCain was hoping for.

The film has been referred to as a pre-obituary and its title called ghoulish. But McCain’s frank discussions about his limited time left on Earth and the end of a mission of “serving something more important than myself” are profound and moving.

Says Lieberman, “He faces his mortality with the same sort of fearlessness that’s characterized his life.”

McCain’s favorite passage from Hemingway’s novel, which opens the film, is a quote from the book’s protagonist Robert Jordan: “The world is a fine place/And worth the fighting for/And I hate very much to leave it.”

He paraphrases Jordan’s quote at the close of the film, and in McCain fashion, changes the words to say goodbye on his own terms.

‘John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls’

Where: HBO

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)


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