Telling John McCain’s Story
By Diana Landes
John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls filmmakers Peter, George and Teddy Kunhardt discuss McCain’s legacy and the urgency of his message.
HBO: Why is this the moment to tell Senator McCain’s story?
Peter Kunhardt: It is so polarized today. The political debate has been reduced to name calling and false charges. McCain is the only person in the Senate with the clout to stand up against it. He crosses party lines. Unless something’s done it’s going to continue to fracture. For all those reasons I think the timing is exactly right. He’s the antidote to the venom floating through Congress.
Teddy Kunhardt: Senator McCain wanted to send a message to the American people and his colleagues in the Senate: We have to start working together to get things done.
HBO: How did his health affect your process overall?
Teddy Kunhardt: We wanted to get his friends and family talking about him in the present tense. And with the current political climate, we thought John’s message was important enough to fast track the project.
George Kunhardt: He wanted to be around to see this film and have this story told, so his illness expedited the process and opened doors that otherwise wouldn’t have been open to us.
Peter Kunhardt: He also opened up himself — when you face your own mortality you answer questions differently. I think he was more revealing and reflective than he had been before.
HBO: What is it like to make a documentary when the situation is still developing?
Peter Kunhardt: To produce a film while the story is in the headlines is exhilarating because you realize you’re writing about history as it unfolds, but we purposely didn’t get wrapped up in the back and forth. We decided early on that we weren’t going to get caught up in politics, and that this film was going to be more the essential McCain, and not about anything making headlines today and gone tomorrow.
HBO: McCain does not shy away from discussing his regrets, were you expecting that level of openness?
Teddy Kunhardt: When we went down to Sedona, we asked what he hoped to achieve with the film. He wanted to show people that he’s human; he’s had failures. He didn’t want to be glorified.
HBO: You interviewed several major figures in American politics: What was that process like?
George Kunhardt: We never experienced this with any other film we’ve done — everyone responded with an immediate yes.
Peter Kunhardt: There aren’t many people who can command that kind of love and respect from their peers. Even people who were characterized as “opponents” like President Obama or President Bush — all of them had a special place in their heart for the senator.
HBO: How did McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam affect his values and the rest of his career?
Peter Kunhardt: Before he was shot down, McCain was kind of a party boy. I think his experience in the camp made him realize what leadership meant: how to care for his fellow prisoners and accept care from them. After being tortured, he felt he broke the Navy code of conduct when he signed a confession. He regretted that for the rest of his life. It was an experience where his principles were tested.
George Kunhardt: Because he endured it, it also taught him how inhumane, wrong and ineffective torture is.
Teddy Kunhardt: I had a hard time grappling with the fact that when he returned home he was not haunted by his experience. He was beaten for five years, in solitary for two and a half. After he was held in solitary he was moved into a bigger room with 20-30 people, so the last years weren’t as bad. Had he come home after the years in solitary things might have been different. But I think he returned with a new appreciation for America, for freedom of speech. He was given another chance at life.
HBO: It’s striking to see McCain’s presidential campaigns play out next to each other. In reviewing the footage, were you surprised by how much has changed?
Peter Kunhardt: Everything today is done by tweet, which says it all. In his first run McCain had long, in-depth conversations with reporters. The second time he ran, technology caught up. He didn’t fit the mold of this new fast-paced shorthand. I think that was a great detriment to him.
HBO: Were you surprised to hear McCain regrets not choosing Joe Lieberman as his running mate in 2008?
George Kunhardt: We were surprised that he said it in public. He had never talked about it on camera before. His inner circle knew how he felt, but when John told us there was an audible gasp on our side, even from his wife Cindy. It was a big breakthrough.
Peter Kunhardt: It shouldn't be perceived that he was disappointed in himself for picking Sarah Palin. He said nothing negative about Sarah Palin. Once he agreed that he couldn’t win with Lieberman, he picked Palin. The fact that he said he should have listened to his gut and stuck with Lieberman is such a McCainism: On one hand, he knew he couldn’t have stood up to the uproar at the convention, but he still wishes he did it.
HBO: What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
Teddy Kunhardt: People are going to come to this film with predetermined ideas. Some will view him as a maverick; some will view him as an angry, temperamental hawk. I’m hoping that this film will show he is a good human being with a strict moral code who has given his life to serving.
Peter Kunhardt: My own preconception of McCain was that he was an independent-minded maverick who was stubborn, feisty and liked a good fight. In fact, he made more concessions — and thus passed more legislation—with people across the aisle than anyone else. In a funny way he’s the reverse of the public image of him, which is to say, he is a seeker of common ground.
John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls is now available to stream.