WASHINGTON — HBO’s CEO Richard Plepler said that when he told John McCain last summer that the network planned a Washington screening of a documentary about his life, “His face lit up, and he brightened and he looked at me and he said, ‘That would be just miraculous and I want to be here to join in that extraordinary day.’”
“I said, ‘God willing you will be,’” Plepler said, adding, “And he is here in spirit.”
Plepler was at the Capitol on Thursday before a crowd that included Senate and House leaders and many members to screen “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which will premiere on Memorial Day.
Among those at the event were McCain’s brother, Joe, and his mother, Roberta, now 106. She held a glass of wine as a parade of her son’s colleagues said hello and shook her hand.
In the project, McCain reflects on his life and career, in an interview last summer conducted shortly after he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
“You will never talk to anyone that is as fortunate as John McCain,” he says at one point in the documentary, which features extensive footage and recollection of his experience as a POW during Vietnam, his entry into political life, and his two runs for the presidency. Throughout, he’s shown as a man striving to stay true to his own sense of principle and integrity — and willing to admit it when he falls short.
The filmmakers — Peter Kunhardt and sons George and Teddy Kunhardt — also interviewed McCain’s wife, Cindy; his first wife Carol Shepp; his children; and other relatives, along with a who’s who of colleagues. That included former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, John Kerry, Henry Kissinger, and Joe Lieberman.
As he does in his recent book, McCain talks about wanting to have picked Lieberman as a running mate in 2008, a choice that he was warned may have split the Republican National Convention. Instead, he picked Sarah Palin.
“That was widely known and reported at the time,” Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime speechwriter and collaborator, told Variety. “Regretting not picking Joe Lieberman is not the same as saying I regret picking Sarah Palin. People should not draw that conclusion. He was persuaded not to pick Lieberman and he went back and looked at other candidates and he went and chose her, and he’s never expressed any regret privately or publicly to me.”
Palin was not interviewed, a decision that the filmmaking team made. “We really wanted to speak to people who knew McCain inside out and backwards, their family or close friends,” Teddy Kunhardt said. “Sarah Palin knew him for a short window of time, and we didn’t think she would shed the insight we were looking for.”
Another figure not featured: President Donald Trump.
That, too, was a decision the filmmakers made. “It sucks the air out of the room, and we wanted the attention to be on John’s message,” Kunhardt said.
The McCain-Trump relationship has been an ongoing source of media fascination. Most recent were reports of a White House aide who made a dismissive comment about McCain’s health.
“I don’t think he cared,” Salter said. “It is hard for family and friends to hear that kind of stuff, and it denigrates millions of Americans living with cancer now. But in terms of him, he’s a tough guy. He’s not going to let something like that bother him.”
Teddy Kunhardt said that at one point during their interview, McCain talked about being in his “last fight.” He wasn’t talking about cancer, nor was he talking about Trump. What he meant was a desire to restore regular order in the Senate, Kunhardt said.
That was the topic of McCain’s speech when he returned to the Senate after his cancer diagnosis last July, and was reflected in his decisive vote against efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. That moment is featured in the movie, as McCain walks past Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor and gives the thumbs down, handing a victory to the Democrats.
McConnell was among the senators who spoke to the crowd who gathered in the Senate auditorium for the screening, telling them that he visited the McCain’s at their Sedona home last Sunday.
“Each of us who served with John McCain can remember a time he was our fiercest ally, and a time when he was our most maddening opponent,” McConnell said.
He then quipped, “It was no fun finding yourself in John’s crosshairs. I mused to [my wife] Elaine that the guards that got stuck watching John’s cell at the Hanoi Hilton probably had to form a support group afterward.”
The title of the documentary refers to McCain’s favorite book. He’s said that Ernest Hemingway’s hero, Robert Jordan, “was everything I ever wanted to be.”
McCain has repeated one of the character’s quotes many times before: “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for, and I hate very much to leave it.”