A new documentary leaves out the unflattering parts of John McCain’s life

‘John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls’ was made to spit-shine the senator’s image.

A new documentary leaves out the unflattering parts of John McCain’s life

‘John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls’ was made to spit-shine the senator’s image.

John McCain’s reputation among rank-and-file conservatives has never been worse. Thanks to his ongoing feud with the president over the latter’s “I like people who weren’t captured” remark from nearly three years ago, all but the most bowtied Republicans have abandoned the longtime Arizona senator as a relic of the pre-Trump party. The 85 percent of Republicans who stand with Trump really, truly hate McCain, and with a fervor typically reserved for food-stamp recipients. This explains why McCain and his defenders have been directing a public-relations blitz at the MSNBC crowd, culminating in the release of an HBO documentary about the senator’s life, John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls. Now that the senator has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, preserving his legacy is a race against the clock. Whatever mystique he built up with Republicans as a maverick war hero is gone, leaving him no choice but to aggressively appeal to the politically naive, centrist Democrats who are currently hard at work rehabilitating such figures as James Comey and George W. Bush.

Such a cohort is the target audience for HBO’s cloying documentary, which premiered May 28 and is billed as an “Illuminating profile of [McCain], whose recent battle against cancer epitomizes the courage and fortitude of a man who spent five-plus years as a Vietnam POW, followed by an illustrious 31-year career in Congress.” The documentary has amassed glowing reviews: National Review loved For Whom the Bell Tolls (“extraordinary grit and dignity”), as did the Washington Post (“heroically touching”), The Los Angeles Times (“as candid as the maverick himself”), and New York (“a moving farewell to a flawed, but still admirable, man”).

The adulatory tone of the documentary’s description carries over to the film, which is almost entirely narrated by McCain himself and “illuminates” very little other than that the senator thinks he kicks ass, and his friends and family agree. He’s a maverick, he sticks to his guns, he puts country above party — if you were alive in 2008, you know the drill. The whole endeavor of enshrining McCain’s life on film at this late a date is a bit paradoxical; the point is clearly to spit-shine his public image, but writing his own hagiography from his deathbed ends up making him appear insecure and self-involved.

But this duality has always been central to McCain’s character. There is the soldier McCain, stoic and individualistic, and then there is the politician McCain, who would do just about anything to get positive media coverage. If the Senator has excelled at anything in his life, it has been establishing a soaring mystique around himself as a bipartisan hero, unbound by party obligations and driven only by personal conviction. The media, eager to elevate moderates, has always acquiesced to this narrative. But with very few meaningful exceptions, McCain has always voted as a regular old Republican, and he bears as much responsibility for his party’s continued inhumanity as anyone else — despite what this documentary would have you believe.

The whole endeavor of enshrining McCain’s life on film at this late a date is a bit paradoxical.

And so, over a backdrop of swelling strings, John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls gives us a rose-tinted summary of McCain’s life. On Vietnam, we hear the same tropes about sacrifice and bravery that we did from his campaign in 2008, albeit with the addition of stock footage and quotes from Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. McCain, the pilot son of a Navy admiral, was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 “just after [his] bombs dropped.” Whether those particular bombs contributed to the 65,000 civilian deaths North Vietnam saw as a result of U.S. and South Vietnamese strikes goes undiscussed. He was taken prisoner, at which point he was given the chance to return to the U.S. due to his father’s position. He refused on the grounds that other prisoners had been there longer, plus his release would be used as propaganda by the Viet Cong, and so he remained a prisoner of war for five years.

Any expectation that the documentary might give us a fresh perspective on Vietnam dissipates when Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, appears to wheeze out a utilitarian defense of the 1972 “Christmas bombings” that killed 1,624 North Vietnamese civilians. At the end of the segment, McCain admits that the war was unwinnable and that the government lied in order to protect Nixon’s reputation, but this doesn’t seem to color any of his prior recollections about his sacrifice. Like every instance of supposed regret in For Whom the Bell Tolls, McCain keeps his reminiscing superficial enough not to affect his legacy in any meaningful way.

Naturally, the documentary’s recollection of McCain’s Senate career emphasizes his occasional and bombastic efforts toward bipartisanship and compromise. This is his best hope at being remembered fondly, and so a parade of centrist icons marches by to reword the same sentiment a hundred different ways. The Clintons, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, and George W. Bush give quotes on McCain’s determination and willingness to reach across the aisle. After a while, they have to get creative with their wording. “He was really a missile that aimed itself at anything dishonorable,” David Brooks says, forgetting that a missile was what knocked McCain down over Hanoi.

McCain is also praised for his willingness to indulge and play ball with the liberal press, an inclination that is euphemized here as “transparency.” His campaign manager Rick Davis recalls that during his 2000 presidential campaign “every day, 18 hours a day, John McCain would be surrounded by the press corps that was covering him.” This, of course, was a cynical exercise in mythmaking — as in this documentary, McCain was actively feeding the media his preferred self-image. To see McCain’s schmoozing with the liberal press 18 hours a day as a positive thing, one would have to be either (1) part of the dopey access-hungry media that continues to fall for McCain’s charm offensives, or (2) completely unfamiliar with John McCain.

Perhaps the most significant decision of McCain’s career, his vote in support of the invasion of Iraq, goes unmentioned in favor of his later concerns about the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib. Even though he calls the war “a mistake” in his 2018 memoir, The Restless Wave, the documentary acts as though he first learned of the war in mid-2004, when the media obtained photographs of elaborate torture scenarios enacted by U.S. soldiers. Hillary Clinton — who also voted to invade Iraq — speaks with reverence about McCain’s outrage at the time, saying that he wanted “names” and “people to be held accountable.” Of course, the most prison time any of the Abu Ghraib interrogators served was six-and-a-half years, and McCain continued to call for troop surges until 2008, but he was very concerned about the optics of it all.

The climax of McCain’s career was his 2008 presidential campaign, and one might typically expect a documentary on his life to cover it in depth. But it does not, probably because this would require reminding viewers that McCain was ever in conflict with Democrats (and, by extension, the audience). His 2008 platform of “George W. Bush-lite” is ignored in favor of his attempts to bridge the divide between himself and Obama, and in lieu of anything more substantive we get a video of his concession speech. He passes the blame onto his advisers for elevating Sarah Palin and her unruly brood to national prominence and then, after another soundbite from David Brooks, McCain’s vice presidential nominee is never mentioned again.

McCain keeps his reminiscing superficial enough not to affect his legacy in any meaningful way.

The normally camera-friendly Palin is absent from the film, and this foreshadows the documentary’s most striking omission: that of Donald Trump. There are zero mentions of the sitting president, and it’s easy to imagine why — this is McCain writing his own legacy, and the last thing he wants anyone to remember is his emasculation at the hands of a senile TV host. Plus, including Trump in the narrative would require a deeper dive into the intellectual decline of the GOP, and that would mean another look at everything the documentary glosses over, like the lies that led to the Iraq War and the way the GOP indirectly benefited from anti-Obama conspiracy theories.

The elephant in the room throughout the entire hour and 45 minutes is that McCain, for all his qualms about Trump’s demagoguery and the decline of the GOP, was entirely in control of who would inherit his senate seat. If he had chosen to step down before May 30, his successor would have been chosen in a special election. Given that Arizona is gradually becoming less Republican and the state GOP is a complete mess, this would have meant handing his seat to a Democrat. Helping to deny Trump a Republican majority in this way, rather than just sniping at him through the media, would have been a genuine act of courage and bipartisanship worthy of all this pablum.

Instead, since McCain chose not to step down, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey will be able to appoint a fellow Republican to serve through 2020. In the documentary, McCain’s decision to stick it out despite his poor health is attributed to his love of the Senate. “He’s better in Arizona, I think, health-wise, but we sort of collectively made the decision that if he doesn’t work, he would get sick faster,” his daughter Meghan says in an interview. “Work feeds him, and it’s so much of a part of who he is, so I’m very supportive of him being in D.C.” If this argument against resigning made sense then, it certainly doesn’t now — McCain hasn’t used his seat to cast a vote since last December.

However many the faults of McCain and his myopic farewell tour, it seems to be working on the target audience. The fact that he retained his unused senate seat this long — leaving his constituents without representation in Congress so the GOP could evade a special election — seems to have gone unnoticed by liberals. As always, the media fell for McCain’s meager charms, and he will probably get the legacy he always wanted. The Republican Party will continue to round up immigrants, roll back women’s rights and destroy the social safety net, but John McCain, the individual, will be exempt from judgment.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer at The Outline.