HBO Documentaries: “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Final Year”

By | June 30, 2018

Two great documentaries that most political junkies will probably love. Although the subject matter is fairly different (for political docs), there are some overlaps in that both are about honorable civil servants trying–and mostly failing–to do the right thing in the face of a rising wave of political ignorance and hostility.

The Final Year…This documentary follows Barack Obama’s foreign policy team during his final year in office, especially Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, and Secretary of State John Kerry. The film picks up equal parts tension between Rhodes and Power (whose differing opinions seemingly set the stage for some of the divisions within the Democratic Party we’re seeing now), and the honorable elder statesman Kerry’s wheeling and dealing on various big deals like Climate Accords or the Iran Deal.

What’s most heartbreaking is seeing people like Kerry’s intensely patriotic work repeatedly undermined by Trump (he would rip up most of the deals Obama made although the people on film don’t know that yet) or the funereal reaction to Trump’s election night win. But this is an inspiring, gorgeous documentary (shots against the Arctic are particularly stunning) and it’s hard not to hear Kerry talk about how he’ll “never stop trying to find a way forward” that doesn’t include war–he actually means it–without tearing up. Grade: A-

For Whom the Bell Tolls…John McCain is a man of honor. That’s the biggest takeaway from this fascinating documentary that does a deep-dive through his life. We’ve often heard about McCain’s Vietnam imprisonment and torture, but here we actually see stunning black and white footage from this time period. And it’s more than a little jarring to see a young McCain in artsy grindhouse footage (like an experimental early 70’s film) looking like he’s near death, and only slightly less shocking to see a more recent McCain facing down a ridiculous GOP base in 2008 when he defends Barack Obama–and a crowd at his own rally seemingly turns on him.

It’s revealing that most of the talking heads interviewed for this doc are actually Democrats (Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, McCain’s good friend Joe Biden) or independents (Joe Lieberman who was McCain’s original running mate pick before his staff convinced him on Sarah Palin), and they speak glowingly of him. Some of the lonely Republicans interviewed are George W. Bush–who McCain doesn’t say a kind word about, most likely because of Bush’s morally bankrupt 2000 campaign that spread the false rumor McCain’s adopted South Asian daughter was actually the illegitimate product of an affair with a black woman–and McCain’s friend Lindsey Graham. [Palin is a telling omission, and obviously Trump nor any of his henchmen appear.] It’s more than worth watching if you want to see the endangered species that is the last real Republican moderate, although I wish the title had been “Maverick’s Last Ride” or “Last of the Moderates.” Grade: B+

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