An ailing but optimistic 81-year-old McCain opens the film on a note of fearlessness in the face of mortality, sharing his demands for straight talk from the circumspect doctors who diagnosed him last year with an almost certainly terminal brain cancer.
From there, this 1-hour 45-minute film from director Peter Kunhardt (and his collaborator sons George and Teddy Kunhardt) gets down to the business of McCain hagiography, an honest if highly spit-shined effort, in which the senator narrates the highs and lows of his life of service and everyone else gets their last say about the senator.
And I mean everyone: Interviewees include close associates, lifelong chums, fellow GOP-ers, former presidents and across-the-aisle adversaries, as well as McCain’s wife, Cindy, and his ex-wife, Carol, and most of his children.
The family keeps their emotions pretty much in check while reminiscing; the politicos, on the other hand, frequently choke up just thinking about McCain in the past tense. The takeaway in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (the subtitle is a nod to McCain’s favorite novel and idolization of the main character, Ernest Hemingway’s eager young warrior Robert Jordan) is that the country is on the verge of losing one of the last public servants who still know the meaning of useful compromise and respect for opposing views. Once he’s gone, forget it, it’s over.
That, of course, is overstatement. But you can’t blame people for feeling this way, since we get repeat, daily reminders that Washington has gone to hell. McCain had a front-row seat to the sowing of the demonic seeds of the discord he now bemoans (he did, after all, bring Sarah Palin into the national spotlight), which in this film is both evident and yet inconvenient to the story at hand. McCain’s maverick tendencies are working to ensure that he goes out as a voice of reason and reconciliation, begging for an end to poisonous partisanship. His biggest weakness is seen as being too darn honest.
“I’ve been tested on a number of occasions. I haven’t always done the right thing,” McCain says. “The important thing is not to look back and figure out all the things I should have done, and there’s lots of those, but to look back with gratitude.”
No mention whatsoever is made of the White House’s current occupant — and that’s fine, except when it further causes a viewer to wonder what sort of film this is. Just a hearty biography? It does adhere to a strict chronology (as if viewers had never heard of the man), following young McCain’s military pedigree to his years held captive in Vietnam, then to his reentry into normal life, a second marriage and the entirety of a 31-year political career, including two runs for president — first as the rogue challenger to an inevitable Bush dynasty in 2000 and then as the party’s choice in 2008.
Is the film, then, an end-run on the in-memoriam coverage we can expect following McCain’s death? Is it the sort of film one might keep on a loop in the theater at a presidential library for someone who was never president?
“He had an extraordinary biography — he looked the part,” recalls Barack Obama, who defeated McCain in ’08.
It was that campaign in which McCain is seen in a now-famous moment of trying to stave off the encroaching ugliness of 21st-century politics, shaking his head and grabbing a microphone from an older voter who called Obama an “Arab,” sticking up for his opponent’s character (but forgetting to take the opportunity to defend all Arab Americans). Still, you think: pretty stand-up guy.
“A lot of people tried to get me to say bad things about him during that time, and I was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” recalls Carol McCain, the wife who held out hope for his return during his captivity, raised his kids and eventually got asked for a divorce, which she gave him. “I mean, I love the man. . . . I’m very sad that he’s going to be leaving us in the next year. It’s heartbreaking. It’s not fair.”
There’s a lot of talk like this near the end of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — pre-grieving along with an awkward mix of verb tenses. Here and not here; served, yet still serving; gone, but present. It’s an altogether new form of tribute: Having one’s last word while being able to hear the things everyone will say when you’re really gone.
John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls (105 minutes) premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO.