John McCain: For Whom The Bell Tolls is an honest and compelling portrait of the life and career of one of the United States’ most renowned politicians.
But arguably the most remarkable aspect of the HBO documentary is that it even exists at all. It was shot in just 7 months when films of this ilk usually take a year and a half, plus there was the added complication that the 81-year-old McCain had just been diagnosed with the rare and aggressive brain cancer known as glioblastoma.
I recently had the chance to chat to Ted Kunhardt, who made the documentary alongside his brother, George, and father, Peter, and he talked me through its origins, the film’s remarkably quick production, John McCain’s reaction to it, and explained why the senator’s friendship with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton is genuine.
How did you get involved in “For Whom The Bell Tolls”?
In 2008/2009 we did a film for HBO on Ted Kennedy. Right after that he was diagnosed with the same cancer glioblastoma that Senator McCain has. We filed it in our heads back then that if Ted was the line for the Democrats, then John McCain would be the same for the Republicans. When the news alerts that Senator McCain had cancer emerged I immediately called my father and my brother and said, ‘Let’s do this film. The clock is ticking.’ My father called up HBO and within a split second of saying John McCain they’d said, ‘We are in. How do we get to him?’ We went through Mark Saltzer, who is his co-author. We met with Mark, sent him some of our films, just talked to him. He liked the fact that we are a family company and we worked together. He then relayed that info to John McCain and Cindy, and they said they were in. It was as easy as that.
You made the film so quickly, too.
So the film was done in about 7 months. It usually takes us a year and a half to make a HBO documentary. This was totally accelerated. We weren’t looking to take on new work, but when the opportunity presented itself we just couldn’t pass it up.
What did you want to achieve with the documentary?
I am of a younger generation than my father, I am in my 30s. And the John McCain I know is John McCain from the campaign in 2008. I knew him as a candidate, that he was a POW. I didn’t know too much else about him. But after reading all of his books and really getting to know the guy we thought it was important to figure out the man, and I hate to use this term, but figure out the man behind the maverick. Everyone refers to John as a maverick, and we wanted to figure out who he really was. We’re not politicians, we’re not too invested in politics, so we were really studying the man and his life. It was important for us and especially John that we didn’t shy away from his failures and his missteps. So that’s why we talked about his divorce and the Keating Five scandal and to talk about his wrongful support of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina. When we first went down to Sedona to talk to him he said, ‘I don’t want you to shy away from these things. Because this is who I am and this is my life.’
What was John McCain’s reaction to it?
About 3 weeks ago I offered to bring the film down to him and show it to him. This was right after he had had surgery on his intestines. He was still in hospital. I put the film on the TV and we watched it together. I was pretty much watching him watch it. It was pretty special. He was very silent, but completely focused on the film. At the end, he motioned me to come closer, he grabbed my hand and said, ‘You nailed it. Thank you my friend. Thank you.’ It was a moment that I will never forget. As a filmmaker who has spent 7 months with this man it was incredibly rewarding.
What was your biggest takeaway from talking with John McCain?
From following the 2008 campaign I knew John had a temper, I didn’t know too much further than that. But when I got down to Sedona the first thing I thought was, ‘This is a nice guy. This is the kind of guy you just want to hang out with.’ He was interested in my life and my brother’s life and he was genuine and there was no pretense. I felt instantly welcomed. It was refreshing. When people like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton say they love the guy, their love is true because John is just a nice person. He might have political spouts with people, but at the end of the day he is still a good guy. I have always read about his friends as Democrats. I will use Hillary Clinton as the clearest example, because when I went into that interview I was like, ‘Come on, they can’t really be friends.’ But within moments of talking to her you could just feel the love and friendship. It was just palpable. She truly likes, respects and cares for John, as did he. He lit up about them traveling together. His friendships are true and not political advantages. I was always a little hesitant and apprehensive about those, but doing this film definitely cleared that up and made me realize that was true.
“John McCain: For Whom The Bell Tolls” will air on HBO on Monday April 28 at 10pm.