A Deep Dive Into HBO's John McCain Documentary
Emmy-winning documentarians George and Teddy Kunhardt share their thoughts and experiences with this larger-than-life figure of American history.
Left to right: Teddy Kunhardt, John McCain, George Kunhardt, and Peter Kunhardt
Photo by Clair Popkin
On August 25, 2018, one more old soldier simply faded away. But this wasn’t just any old soldier. Not even three months earlier, Emmy-winning documentarians and Westchester County residents George, Teddy, and Peter Kunhardt released the HBO documentary John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, a two-hour examination of the Senate maverick’s mercurial life and times. Though the timing of the release and McCain’s death may seem ominous to some, the truth is that the subject of the documentary, along with its producers, were quite well aware that they were filming on borrowed time. What follows is a frank discussion between WM senior editor Nick Brandi and George and Teddy Kunhardt, who shared their thoughts and experiences, on and off camera, with this larger-than-life figure of American history.
How long did it take you to get the completed McCain documentary done?
George Kunhardt: This film took us just about seven months to produce. It was Teddy’s idea originally, but when we heard the diagnosis, we jumped into gear. Within three weeks after contacting him, we went to Arizona, spent three days filming with the senator and then came back and a couple weeks later spent three to four days with the senator in DC, so we had a significant amount of time with him.
This was our 16th HBO production, and never has HBO green-lit us so quickly. It was overnight that we sent the idea, and within 10 minutes, we got the green light. On top of that we never had access to people so quickly. For instance, reaching out to President Obama usually would take months to a year to get an agreement for an interview. But within a week or two, we were sitting down, interviewing him. It speaks volumes.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Kennedy not long ago, and she revealed some not commonly known things about her father. Among them, she said, “Dad was neither as far left as some wanted to believe nor as hawkishly right as others believed. He did what he felt like he needed to do at the time, according to the circumstances, but he was not an ideologue. He just wanted what was fair." I found that interesting.
George: Sounds like McCain.
What do you learn in the course of making this film that you didn’t expect going in?
Teddy Kunhardt: When we really dove into his story, we figured out that this guy was really something else. What struck me most was that after being brutally tortured for five and a half years, John McCain would be the person to spearhead normalization of relations with Vietnam and that he forgave his captors and was the person to bring the two nations together. Not many people realize it, but without John McCain, Vietnam wouldn’t be where it is at today.
George: One more that we talked about is that McCain was a conservative Republican, but he is not irrational. When it came to global warming, he traveled with Hillary Clinton to learn about it. He really has the ability to work across the aisle, and it’s not talk; it’s action, which speaks louder than words
Also campaign-finance reform, with McCain-Feingold — not the classic Republican party line.
George: Yeah, he was hated by Republicans for that one. He did what he did and said what he said. It all goes back to the Keating Five. He knew he really screwed up by sitting in some of those meetings, so he made it his life’s mission to fix a system that was broken.
Senator McCain was incredibly penitent about his sins. There are a lot of things that he probably regretted. So, based on your discussions with him, what would you suppose was his heaviest burden, at least professionally, if not personally?
George: That’s a great question. Based on our conversations with him, both on-camera and off, we think it was his initial statement about the Confederate flag in South Carolina. That was a major, major thing for him. He knew what he said initially was wrong, and he hated that. From our conversations, that was the biggest one.
David brooks said that McCain had a moral compass inside, and when he was doing something dishonorable, he knew it. That why he went back to South Carolina after he lost, when he didn’t have to, and apologized.
Teddy: The fact that he had this moral compass, within the context of national politics, must have been incredibly difficult. Just so you are aware, the first time we went back to Arizona, right after his diagnosis, George and I and Peter [Kunhart, Teddy and George’s father] were talking with McCain, and he said, “Look, I’m not naïve. I brought you guys down here as quickly as I did because I know this disease is a vicious one, and it is going to go quick.” He knew death was imminent. He said, “I want my last fight to bring my policies together, to take the Senate back to where it use to be, where Democrats and Republicans can work together… it wasn’t that long ago.” If this film has one mission, it is to show that we can get there, and we can get things done the right way, not the way it is being done now. He said, “Please tell this story, warts and all; don’t sugarcoat anything.”
It is very hard to find an interview with Caroline McCain, his first wife, her after their divorce. But McCain called her up and said, “I’m doing this film with these guys; would you please do me a favor and sit with them?” She replied, “Yeah, anything for you.”
That came out in the documentary. She seemed reluctant to say anything negative about him. She admitted when times were tough, but she didn’t seem to want to denigrate him.
Teddy: Oh, no, she is still very much in love with him. Always will be.
Did you get any sense that there was any lingering resentment or bitterness between Caroline and McCain’s second wife, Cindy?
Teddy: I think if we interviewed them 10 years ago, then perhaps. But his cancer diagnosis made everyone reflective. In the time of our interviews, no one was looking back in bitterness; they were looking back and forward in joy.
Do you have a sense of what he was most proud of?
George: It was his service to his country. It didn’t matter what he was doing, as long as he was serving his country. He loved this country, and until the day he died, he served it. I think he is proud of the bills he passed, too, but I think the commitment to serving this country honorably was his proudest achievement, aside from his family.
Tell me something that might be fun or illuminating about the man that didn’t make the final cut of the documentary.
George: It would have to be his love of birds. All around him were his birds; he had hawks flying around. He took us on a little tour, showing off his birds. We have [Senator] Lindsey Graham talking about McCain showing him his birds. It was a passion for him, an obsession.
This is how cool this guy is — after the first day of interviewing him, for what would’ve been probably five hours. He has an outdoor patio that has a kegerator. He invited everyone, us and the entire crew, to sit down and have a beer with him. It was like: “Wow, I can’t believe you’re not kicking us out of your house!” He lives off this long dirt road, and this utility truck got stuck, and you see him and Cindy on their golf cart, driving up to them and offering to help them push the truck out. It was a three-ton truck! He was so generous with his time. We didn’t know what to expect when we first met him, but we were so delighted with how amazing he was.
It occurs to me that Senator McCain suffered two very bitter, frustrating presidential bids. The first involved a Republican primary loss to George W. Bush, who was considered by many to have sanctioned a very nasty, dirty campaign to be run against McCain. In the second bid, he gets closer to the prize: This time he is the Republican nominee for president, running against Barack Obama. I believe he was doing well in the polls, but then the Great Recession hit, and pundits claim that the electorate blamed the Republicans for it more than they did the Democrats. Then comes Hurricane Sandy, and Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie is seen hugging Democratic nominee Obama in front of a legion of cameras…
George: We debated this long and hard, and I know where you are going with this. They are both stingers, and they were both very, very hard for McCain to bear. I think you set it up beautifully — you described the lead-ups to both very accurately. But we think the loss to Bush was the one that bothered him the most. The dirty campaign — saying he had a black child out of wedlock — was very disgusting and hurtful. And then you fast forward to the Obama contest. We interviewed his daughter Meghan, and she said, “Even if my father ran with Jesus Christ, he couldn’t have beaten Obama.”
I know there are a lot of people who are worried with the death of the maverick and what that portends for the future of national politics. I think McCain was worried about it, too. What’s your opinion?
Teddy: I think John would say that he hopes his story would inspire the next maverick. Who is going to fill the shoes of John McCain? I’m not sure, but I hope his story — and perhaps our story about him — will produce the next John McCain.
We are not political people. We are storytellers; we want to get to the emotions of a story. Ultimately, all of our documentaries fall under the banner of moral leadership. That is our banner of filmmaking, and that is the common thread.