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'John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls' review: Reverential, but not incisive enough

John McCain, then a presidential candidate, looks

 John McCain, then a presidential candidate, looks out over a Denver rally on Oct. 24, 2008. Credit: Reuters/HBO/Brian Snyder

THE DOCUMENTARY “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls”

WHEN | WHERE Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Over six hours, Peter Kunhardt and sons George and Teddy interviewed the ailing 81-year-old John McCain at his home in Sedona, Arizona. Similar to the 2009 film the Kunhardts produced on McCain’s friend and Senate colleague, Edward Kennedy, before his death (Kennedy was also suffering from brain cancer), “For Whom the Bell Tolls” also covers the expanse of McCain’s life and career. First wife Carol Shepp, and wife Cindy McCain, as well as children from both marriages are interviewed on camera, along with colleagues, friends and former rivals (George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton). McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, in 2017.

MY SAY Facing his own mortality, John McCain had the good sense to accept an offer from the Kunhardts for this portrait. Excellent filmmakers — Peter, the clan patriarch, is a PBS legend in his own right — they know exactly how to make this sort of television because they’ve made so much of it. And like their last close-up of a Washington monument (Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, also for HBO) they’re not inclined to heresy or revisionism. McCain will love this film, and well he should. Viewers? That’s a little more complicated.

The broad outlines of this remarkable life are well known, while McCain covered many of them himself in five books. Son and grandson of four-star admirals, he was shot down over Hanoi during a bombing run in 1967 and spent five years as a POW, refusing an out-of-sequence release offer by his captors. He was elected to the House in 1982, then the Senate in 1986, and is now in the midst of his sixth term. Over 30-plus years he passed important legislation, survived controversy (notably as a member of the so-called Keating Five) and twice ran for president. He reached across the aisle to broker peace and sponsor bills, and was unafraid of bucking his own party.

That’s all here, yet what’s missing seems equally consequential. He was a leading proponent of the war in Iraq, but offers little perspective or so much as a nuanced afterthought for the film. To his critics, the vice presidential choice of Sarah Palin unleashed a whirlwind that consumed the Republican Party, but his only caveat — an elliptical one — is that “I was persuaded it would be harmful” to have picked Connecticut Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman instead.

His fraught relationship with President Donald Trump is not mentioned, nor is the president. Like the recusal to discuss Palin, these appear to be omissions with their own read-between-the-lines significance.

In a fascinating detour, McCain does speak at length of his lifelong devotion to Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He quotes protagonist Robert Jordan — “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it” — then further elaborates: “Nothing is better than someone who sacrifices themselves for causes greater than themselves and Robert Jordan was that.”

The Kunhardts neither try to crack his inner Hemingway nor hint at the apparent contradiction. McCain, after all, didn’t become a six-term senator and nominee for president by pressing lost causes. But this does fit their “maverick” narrative, and elevates him above the party factionalism that’s crippled Washington. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” seems an apt touchstone too.

In fact, what’s best here are the occasional human flashes of the McCain we think we know — the feisty, salty, tough, funny and candid McCain, and, above all, the fully alive McCain. He laughs when he throws the ball for his dog, or tightly holds Cindy’s hand. The old lion is still engaged out there in Sedona, with those towering red cliffs as witness. “I have lived an honorable life, and I am proud of my life,” he says.

No one’s arguing — certainly not in this film.

BOTTOM LINE A reverent portrait, if not necessarily a penetrating one.

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