Award-winning filmmaker Peter Kunhardt has not one but two documentaries in the running for Emmys this year—one that came out in April and another that is just about to make its debut.
John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls, his film on the ailing senior senator from Arizona, is set to premiere on HBO on Memorial Day, a fitting date given the title subject’s renown as a Vietnam War hero (notwithstanding President Trump’s comments to the contrary) and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We began following [Sen. McCain] and filming him about three weeks after he announced last summer that he had brain cancer,” Kunhardt tells Deadline. “He very smartly knew that he would have a limited time to give us his story with all his memory intact so he gave us terrific access early on. He also put us in touch with all the members of his family, and we spoke to many senators and ex-presidents.”
The documentary will emphasize McCain’s fight to restore a semblance of bipartisanship to American politics.
“I think it’s a message to America and America’s leaders that John McCain was able to cross party lines to get things accomplished because he put country ahead of party,” Kunhardt observes. “When he came back and voted against the healthcare bill with a scar across his eyebrow and all the Republicans expecting him to support it and he surprised them all, I think he gave one of the eloquent speeches of his life on the Senate floor, saying, ‘We’ve got to get back to regular order. We’ve got do this properly. We can’t rush this. We can’t be fighting and getting nothing done.’”
American history suffuses Kunhardt’s other Emmy-qualifying HBO documentary this year, King in the Wilderness, about the last three years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. That period brought a succession of blistering challenges as King tried to take his battle for desegregation to the North, spoke in opposition to the Vietnam War and struggled to hold the Civil Rights Movement together under the banner of non-violence.
“From ’65 to ’68, it was really uncertain territory [for King]. He didn’t know how he would be received when he walked into those northern ghettos. He didn’t know how the country would react so violently against him when he came out against the war in Vietnam,” Kunhardt comments. “When he announced his war on poverty, which forced people to recognize that money was going to have to be spent [to attack the problem]…he faced huge opposition.”
All the while, the growing threat of assassination loomed over King.
“It would have been easy for him to collapse under this pressure, to back off somewhat, to not stick to his principles as tightly as he did. By standing behind what he had always stood for, I think it shows his greatness in an even more meaningful and poignant way than all those successes that came before,” Kunhardt states. “I think those last few years were a window into a real mortal human being who was doing truly heroic and great things. To me when we talk about the mythologized King, this is where he earned those stripes. This is where you really see why he was one of the greatest Americans of all time.”
The estate of Martin Luther King Jr. has proven zealous in protecting rights to his intellectual property, complicating efforts to tell his story in nonfiction or fictionalized form (the screenplay to 2014’s Selma didn’t include King’s speeches from the era covered in that film because director Ava DuVernay couldn’t get the rights to them). Kunhardt says he worked around King’s estate.
“We decided not to approach the family for two reasons. One, we wanted to talk to his contemporaries. King’s family were children at the time [covered in the documentary],” Kunhardt explains. “Two, because of…the copyright ownership of speeches, we made the decision early on that we would only use a maximum of 30 seconds of any copyrighted speech, which [falls under] fair use.”
Kunhardt interviewed many of King’s closest friends and associates for the film, including Andrew Young, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Harry Belafonte. But he also drew on the recollections of people who knew MLK Jr. intimately, but have been heard from less often, including civil rights leader Xernona Clayton.
“We didn’t want to limit this to the familiar talking heads of the past. We wanted to try to find new perspectives, and we also wanted to make sure that women were represented,” Kunhardt insists. “About a third of the people we interviewed were women which I think is something kind of great. It gives a different take on King than others have done in the past.”
Whether it is those well known to history for their work with King, or those less celebrated, it did not take much convincing to get them to participate in the documentary, Kunhardt testifies.
“Everyone wanted to speak about King. I think it was because most of them were in their 80s and most of them felt like, ‘This might be the last time I have an opportunity to talk about him,’” Kunhardt surmises. “So whatever defenses they had up in the decades prior to this, I think they let down their guard a lot and were willing to talk about King, the man, in a more realistic real way—without diminishing any of his greatness, but in a way that the audience could understand who he really was.”