Documentary of senator leaves out politics of the moment

at a glance

What: “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Where: HBO

By David Bauder

AP Media Writer


It’s no coincidence that the words “President Trump” aren’t spoken in “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the HBO documentary on the Arizona senator that debuts Memorial Day.

There’s enough to talk about, from candidate Trump’s belittling of McCain for being taken prisoner in Vietnam to the senator’s rejection of Trump’s promised repeal of the Obama administration’s health care law. McCain’s family doesn’t want Trump at the 81-year-old senator’s funeral when he succumbs to terminal brain cancer.

The filmmaking family of Peter Kunhardt and his sons, George and Teddy, felt that including Trump would detract from McCain’s story.

“We knew that we wanted to portray John in a way that would stand the test of time,” said Peter Kunhardt. “Five years from now, 10 years from now, these attacks are going to fade into the ether and John’s career is going to stand on its own. We didn’t want the oxygen sucked out of the room by what’s going on right now.”

Nicolle Wallace, a top McCain aide during his 2008 campaign for president, said that was smart.

“I think McCain will matter a lot longer than the politics of the moment, and Trump is all about the politics of the moment,” the current MSNBC host said.

Instead, the filmmakers focused McCain’s life and service to his country. The son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war, then entered politics. He’s spent three decades in the Senate and twice ran for president.

The Kunhardts came up with the idea after McCain’s cancer diagnosis was announced and were well-positioned, since they had done a similar film on McCain’s friend Ted Kennedy in the final years before that senator died of the same disease. McCain quickly agreed. He was working on a memoir and saw the documentary as another way to promote his campaign for greater civility and cooperation in public life.

“His story is kind of America’s story,” Peter Kunhardt said. “The combination of his courageous military career and the political career that followed allowed us to look at the last half century of the country through his perspective.”

As a POW, McCain refused when his captors offered to release him before other Americans because his father was Navy brass; he was tortured and nearly died. This weekend marks 45 years from when McCain and other returning POWs were greeted by President Nixon upon their return to the United States. Later in the Senate, McCain worked with Democrat John Kerry, a fellow Vietnam veteran who became an anti-war activist, on normalizing relations with Vietnam.

Half of the Senate turned out for a Washington screening early this month for “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” named after McCain’s favorite novel.

More like this from

Subscribe Today

Sign up for our email newsletter to receive daily news.

Want more? Click here to subscribe to either the Print or Digital Editions.