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HBO's Valedictory John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls Is Not a Puff Piece

TV Reviews John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls
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HBO's Valedictory <i>John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls</i> Is Not a Puff Piece

Valediction? Validation? Both? Does it matter?

For me, there’s something a little bit weird about commemorating someone’s life while they’re still alive, although of course it solves the, “If only I could ask the subject of this documentary for his own thoughts on this” problem. Senator John McCain has been living with end-stage brain cancer for about a year, and he probably doesn’t have a ton of time left, and it’s an interesting perspective from which to document a life. It has a certain obituary feel, a kind of “If you’re watching this, it means I’m dead” vibe to it (not least because of its title, which is pretty heavy-handed even when it’s clarified that the Hemingway novel is McCain’s favorite book). Valedictory? Definitely. A puff piece? Not in my opinion. It seems clear that this film documents how McCain wishes to be remembered. And it’s exceedingly respectful, and generally positive. But I don’t think it’s dishonest. (Some people will. Some people have. And I can understand why.)

Here’s the deal. There are people who love to shit on John McCain. If you are one of those people, congratulations, you have something in common with our current president. Warm fuzzies! Honestly, the fact that he’s spent so much time in Trump’s crosshairs should arguably serve as a clue that the guy’s integrity might be above average on Capitol Hill whether you happen to agree with his positions or not.

Me, I’ve never voted for him, and I don’t share his stances on plenty of issues. But to everyone out there bellowing “Just because someone is dying of brain cancer I’m suddenly supposed to respect him?” HBO would like to offer you the following answer: “No, you shouldn’t respect John McCain because he has stage IV brain cancer.”

It has a lot of other reasons why you should. And you’ll agree or you won’t.

The film tracks his history, from his graduation from Annapolis (by the skin of his teeth) to his five-year imprisonment in “The Hanoi Hilton,” where he was left to waste with multiple broken bones and a bayonet wound to the groin, and where, when he finally regained the ability to walk and was offered a chance to be sent home in a bargaining maneuver (both his father and grandfather were admirals), he chose to remain until prisoners who had been there longer were released in order. It tracks his senatorial career without focusing very sharply on many of his more creepy decisions, but it doesn’t shrink from mentioning the S&L scandal and the “Keating Five” or the nastier moments of the campaign against Bush II. Or the embarrassing Confederate flag moment or the really, really embarrassing time when he dumped Joe Lieberman and took on Sarah Palin as his running mate because the campaign pundits thought it would play better with “the base.” McCain’s open about his mistakes, including personal life issues like dumping his first wife for someone almost twenty years younger. (His first wife and their daughter, who is a pretty staunch liberal, do not have a bitter word to say about him.)

In a seriously hatefully partisan moment in politics, it’s interesting to note the roster of people who are interviewed for this documentary and the things they say. Joe Biden, John Kerry, Barack Obama, the Clintons, and Joe Lieberman all drift across the screen, reminding us how respected he is/was even among peers who disagreed with him on, for example, bombing the living shit out of Iraq. Say whatever else you want about him. Or say what David Brooks says: “I don’t think he could have known this at the time, but in 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.” I’ll go ahead and add that “normal” isn’t necessarily a stellar recommendation for statesmanship and Palin was a very specific, lowest-common-denominator kind of normal (I snorted coffee out my nose over Matt Taibbi’s quip in Rolling Stone: “… IQ of a cheese-wheel—she made Dan Quayle look like Spinoza.”). In any case, I now surprise myself with the words “Brooks hits the nail on the head.” And McCain seems like he did kind of know it at the time, and regrets his role in the degradation.

There’s something a little sterilized and vacuum-sealed about this production, and there is clearly a commitment to not uttering the name of Oval Office Voldemort and that means everyone has to dance around the part where McCain probably does get that in taking on Sarah Palin he played a huge role in creating the conditions that led to Trump’s election. Is For Whom the Bell Tolls a bunch of horrifying lies? No, I don’t think it is. Does it tell the whole story? No, I don’t think it does. And that’s part of the thing about creating memorials to the living. Let’s just say, “John McCain approved this message.”

John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls airs tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.



Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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