At a moment when the difference in values between Senator John McCain and outgoing President Donald Trump could not be in sharper contrast, Stampede Ventures plans to turn the Arizona Senator’s sprawling life story into a feature film. They optioned rights to three books by McCain biographer Mark Salter: The Luckiest Man: Life With John McCain, Faith of My Fathers and Worth the Fighting For. Salter will write the script with Craig Turk, whose credits include FBI, The Good Wife and The Code and who served as Chief Legal Counsel to McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. The film project has the support of the late Senator’s widow Cindy McCain — she will be exec producer — and the McCain family. Led by former Warner Bros production chief Greg Silverman, Stampede Ventures optioned the books and will finance development of the script.
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“Could there be a bigger contrast in how two people exited public life than the way John McCain left it and the way that Donald Trump is doing it now,” Salter asked. “It’s just worlds and universes apart.”
McCain packed a lot of life into 81 years, and the writers admit their challenge will be finding a handle that allows them to cover it all. Using the long feud between the Arizona Senator and President Trump is certainly one way into a tale that will cover McCain’s formative years growing up in a family where both his grandfather and father were storied military figures and four-star generals. The latter commanded naval forces in the Pacific when his aviator son volunteered for Vietnam duty and was shot down in 1967 during a bombing run over the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. Captured and held as a Prisoner of War, the future maverick U.S. was brutally tortured when he refused to be used for propaganda and declined an offer to be set free, unless his fellow POWs were also allowed to leave also. Trump, who as a young man avoided Vietnam with a doctor’s note citing bone spurs, disparaged McCain being called an American hero, because he was captured by the enemy.
The seeds of the current polarization in the Republican Party could be seen during McCain’s run for president against Barack Obama. McCain’s unwillingness to wade in the mud was evident in a famous moment during a campaign rally when a supporter parroted the false narrative about Obama’s birth certificate — propaganda fanned by Trump — and McCain cut the woman off and said that Obama was in fact a good American and they just disagreed philosophically on the best course for the country. McCain publicly withdrew support for Republican candidate Trump after the release of a 2005 recording in which Trump discussed kissing and grabbing women by their genitalia. Trump continued to disparage his rival at every turn, but McCain got the last word: while nearing the end of his life and suffering terribly from terminal brain cancer, McCain made a dramatic appearance to join other Republican senators to block Trump’s attempt to repeal Obamacare. His thumbs-down doomed the partisan movement to repeal that health care act, a major blow to Trump who made the repeal a core campaign promise. After his death, McCain’s family made clear that Trump was not welcome at his funeral ceremony held at the Washington National Cathedral.
“To me, John’s voice, his take on the world, his humor and his convictions were so incredibly specific and unique to him,” said Turk, who will produce the film with Stampede’s Silverman. “He was incredibly smart and informed and knew as much or more than you did on any topic you hit. When I read Mark’s book The Luckiest Man, it captured John so sell. We are going through an incredibly painful period now and I recalled that when things got bad, he would often joke, ‘well, things are always darkest before they are totally black.’ Then he would smile and get about doing what needed to be done, no what the work was and how hard it was or the sacrifice. I’ve felt his absence more profoundly in the past year. Mark and I spoke about that a lot and it just felt like a good time to try this.”
Salter, who spent the better part of his life telling McCain’s story and published The Luckiest Man last October, agreed, “It’s an unprecedented time we’re in and this is the memory of a guy we witnessed who put America first,” Salter told Deadline. “He was funny, profane, with all these dualities to his nature. He was romantic and cynical, an exhilarating guy to be around. He would be the first to tell you that he screwed up a lot in public and private life, but when the real crunch moments came, and his political career was where most got to see this, he would put the country ahead of himself. You never saw that more than in the last years of his life. Where did that begin and what informed those choices? It’s his story in Vietnam. Fifth from the bottom of the class in the Naval Academy, bemoaning to a good friend in the Navy he wasn’t going to get anywhere in the Navy, he didn’t think.”
One challenge will be not to paint McCain with a halo and they will point out the flaws that informed his service, starting with an abject allergy to authority that made his time in the Navy so trying. There are the setbacks including his failed 2008 run for president against Obama, one remembered by the controversial choice to make Alaska Governor Sarah Palin his running mate. Despite her charisma, Palin proved out of her depth on the national stage, and the move backfired and was captured in the Jay Roach-directed film Game Change. To Salter, the catalyst for McCain’s transformation to adopt the values that defined his career were instilled during his Vietnam service and his stretch as a POW.
“He goes to prison, gets the chance to go home and says, no,” Salter said. “Again and again, you saw that courage and selflessness on John McCain’s part, even when you didn’t expect it. I spent 30 years trying to tell his story and I think at this juncture in politics, when nothing even seems familiar, it is worth remembering his example of statesmanship, courage and selfless patriotism. Not tribal patriotism, not geographic patriotism, but a patriotism of values and courage and honor. That is his story and never was it more timely than now.”
Turk’s deal was made by attorney Michael Gendler of Gendler & Kelly.
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