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John McCain Documentary Filmmaker Focuses On Bipartisanship


On Memorial Day, Americans will honor men and women who sacrificed themselves in the service of this country. And while technically Veterans Day in November is the day to honor those veterans still with us, there are two interesting documentaries coming out this weekend that tell the story of what that service can really mean.

We'll start with the film that focuses on one of this country's best known veterans. It's called "John McCain: For Whom The Bell Tolls." It explores the life of the former naval-war-hero-turned-prisoner-of-war-turned-United-States-senator right up to his current battle with brain cancer.


JOHN MCCAIN: And I'm confident, and I'm happy, and I'm very grateful for the life I've been able to lead. And I greet the future with joy.

MARTIN: Peter Kunhardt is one of the filmmakers behind the documentary, and he is with us now. Mr. Kunhardt, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PETER KUNHARDT: Glad to be here. Thanks.

KUNHARDT: John McCain is one of this country's best-known politicians. He's certainly one of the best-known public figures. What are you hoping to accomplish with this film? Is there something you wanted to tell us that you think we don't already know?

KUNHARDT: I think his message is a call for bipartisanship. And this is something that he has actually been fighting for his whole political career. The man has been saying the same thing decade after decade. It's just now, in this political turmoil, that it seems to resonate so with Americans.

MARTIN: The film spends a lot of time focusing on his time as a prisoner of war, and it really drives home that experience there, which I think might stand out more as that period in our history recedes a bit from memory. And I wanted to ask, you know, what are some of the things that stood out to you when you were reporting that part of the story?

KUNHARDT: You know, he told us later that doctors have told him that he has eight times the tolerance for pain that most people have. And that ability to withstand pain came out of those years of torture and solitary confinement in Vietnam. He was offered to be released earlier because of his father, who was an admiral who was in charge of the war in that part of the world. And he refused. He said, the code of conduct forces me to stay until my turn comes up.

That decision kind of colored the McCain set of values that he lived by for the rest of his life. He has a code of - a personal code of conduct that he has fallen back on. Every time he makes a mistake, he goes back to that code of conduct and tries to fix it.

MARTIN: And, of course, this whole question of his service in Vietnam is in the news again, in part because of President Trump when, as a candidate, he seemed to dismiss that experience. And then again, when an aide is reported to have said that - in reference to whether he needed to be courted for his vote - well, he's going to, you know, die soon anyway. And there's been this really visceral reaction to this. I just wonder whether you feel that your film, in a way, helps understand why there's been this kind of visceral and prolonged reaction to this.

KUNHARDT: Well, we have felt that reaction throughout production. There's been so much political noise going on. I think McCain has made a smart decision by not responding to everything that comes out against him. He kind of rolls his eyes when a mistake has been made. When wrong information is put out there, he tries to correct it. But he does not respond to all the personal attacks.

MARTIN: There have been a couple of reviews of the film, and some of the critics are saying that you've glossed over some of the tougher questions in the film like his support of carpet bombing in Vietnam and Cambodia, his hawkishness on Middle East policy. Some people feel that he's been consistently wrong about that.

And also, just the way he's conducted himself politically - for example, glossing over the racism that infused some of his campaigns in South Carolina - not so much by his own actions, but by refusing to distance himself until very late from some of that behavior by his supporters. And what do you say to that?

KUNHARDT: Yeah, the South Carolina incident is one we spent a lot of time on in the film. And he allowed his team to convince him to make a wishy-washy comment about the Confederate flag. And he kicked himself for having done that and apologized profusely. What struck us from John McCain was that he wanted to talk about these incidents. He wanted to apologize again for them, and he wanted to take responsibility for them. So we're showing the evolution of a man who was kind of harsher and harder in his early years, but he's grown, and he's changed, and he's evolved.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I want to go back to something you said at the beginning, which is bipartisanship. Now, that, for some, sounds very quaint. Does he feel that that is an ideal that is lost? Does he feel that it may yet return?

KUNHARDT: You know, when we first met with him, he said, I have two things just to say to you. One is that I have no say over this film. I want you to do me warts and all. I want you to talk to me about anything you want to ask me. But second, I do want to make a case to the American people that bipartisanship is something of a failing art form. And I want to at least make my case while I'm alive to pull people back in that direction.

So, to us, that became the central theme of the film - how one man can make his last battle not just against cancer but against the kind of political turmoil that's going on today.

MARTIN: That's Peter Kunhardt. The Emmy-winning director's latest documentary is called "John McCain: For Whom The Bell Tolls." It premieres on HBO this weekend.

Peter Kunhardt, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KUNHARDT: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And tomorrow on the program, we'll tell you about a new film that highlights the experiences of women who serve in the military. That's tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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