WASHINGTON — The filmmakers behind the HBO documentary “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls” interview family, friends, rivals and colleagues to capture the life of the Arizona senator, who is now battling brain cancer.
But the project, which debuts this weekend, does not include President Donald Trump. In hours of interviews, the filmmakers asked McCain about Trump, but chose not to dwell on the fissures between the two.
“It sucks the air out of the room and we wanted the attention to be on John,” Teddy Kunhardt, who made the film along with his brother George and father Peter, tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. “When we walked around Arizona, he said something along the lines of ‘This is my last fight.’ We assumed he meant cancer. He said it is not about cancer. It is about bringing the Senate back to regular order, about working together in the Senate. And we didn’t want to cloud that message. We really wanted to help him push that message forward about getting back to work.”
Kunhardt adds, “[McCain] said, ‘Look, if he insulted me, I would respond and move on.’ It is very McCain-esque, to respond, put it in the back rearview mirror and move on. But again, it is not just Trump. It is the Senate not working together. It is the anger. It is the bitterness, the unwillingness to get things done the right way.”
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One of the things that stands out about the project are the sheer number of McCain one-time rivals who are interviewed, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The Kunhardts said that they faced little trouble in landing such high-profile names, along with Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, Joseph Biden, Henry Kissinger and John Kerry. Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate in 2008, was not interviewed, a decision the filmmakers made because she “knew him for a short window of time, and we didn’t think she would shed the insight we were looking for,” Kunhardt says.
In the interview, Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime speechwriter and collaborator, talks about how different the senator’s experience was running for president in 2008 versus 2000. Although McCain successfully captured the Republican nomination in 2008, Salter said that before the race started the senator said, “I don’t think I can catch lightning in a bottle twice.”
“I think he probably had a better time, eight years before,” Salter says.
A Politics-Free Memorial Day Concert
Trump also will not be present for this year’s National Memorial Day Concert, set to air on PBS on Sunday night. The reason is simple, according to Joe Mantegna, co-host along with Gary Sinise. Organizers have purposely not invited the commander-in-chief to the event as a way of keeping it from being politicized.
Among those participating this year will be Colin Powell, Allison Janney, Graham Greene, John Corbett, Charles Esten, Brian Tee, Mary McCormack, Cynthia Erivo, Leona Lewis, Megan Hilty, Alfie Boe and the National Symphony Orchestra.
Mantegna also talks about some of the special presentations at the event, marking the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day.
Mark Duplass talks about the challenge of writing a memoir with his brother, Jay. The recently published “Like Brothers” is as much a practical guideway to trying to break in to the entertainment business as it is a candid and humorous account of how two siblings became collaborators. They also made some wise choices, like buying Netflix stock more than a decade ago.
‘To the Moon and Back’
Susan Morgan Cooper’s “To the Moon and Back,” opening this weekend, spotlights the plight of many parents and children who were caught in the middle when Russia banned adoption by U.S. as a response to sanctions imposed on the regime of Vladimir Putin.
Cooper created the movie well before it became a hot topic last summer — what Donald Trump Jr. originally said was the premise for the meeting with a group of Russians during the presidential campaign. That is part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Cooper’s project touches on geopolitics, but like Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning “Icarus,” the movie’s focus is on the human impact, including the tragic situation with adoptive parents who lost one of their children.
Cooper talks about making the movie along with one of the parents, Miles Harrison.
Medical Marijuana Movie
“The Life She Deserves: Medical Marijuana in the United States” will be screened at the Brookings Institution’s Falk Auditorium at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, at an event co-sponsored by Variety. I’ll be moderating a panel afterward with the filmmakers and advocates. More here.
“PopPolitics,” hosted by Ted Johnson, airs from 2-3 p.m. ET-11 a.m.-noon PT on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand.