“Faith of My Fathers” is a biopic about John McCain, the famous senator and presidential candidate. It is based on his memoir which was published in 1999. It was produced for the A&E Network and directed by Peter Markle. The television movie was A&E’s biggest hit for over a year. It was nominated for four Emmy Awards including art direction, editing, and cinematography.
The movie begins in 1967 on an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War. McCain’s (Shawn Hatosy) squadron is sent on a mission to bomb an industrial plant in Hanoi. McCain’s A-4E Skyhawk is hit by a SAM (surface to air missile) and he bails out. He lands in a lake and suffers serious injuries, and that’s before the North Vietnamese brutalize him. His captors soon discover this is no typical imperialist dog. McCain is the son of an admiral. Queue the flashback to a stereotypical father-son biopic relationship. Admiral McCain (Scott Glenn) is disengaged as are all cinematic military fathers. The young McCain is a slacker when it comes to academics, but he’s a chip off the old block and his father see him off to Annapolis with the very uncinematic advice to not care too much about his grades. McCain follows the advice well and adds a streak of demerit-acquisition. Hey, it’s not like his father can complain. Plus, McCain is destined to be a fighter jock, so you know from movies that they don’t give a rat’s ass about the rules. Except the Code of Conduct for prisoners of war. In another war movie trope, McCain woos a young lady named Carol who tames him socially, but doesn’t dilute the warrior instinct.
The flashbacks to his pre-Vietnam days end with the entrance of Carol. From here on we witness his treatment as a prisoner in the infamous North Vietnamese “Hanoi Hilton”. At first he is put in a cell with two other captives, Bud Day and Norris Overly. The other two help McCain recover from his injuries and the horrible treatment he got in the hospital. A theme is established when Overly accepts amnesty, but McCain does not. Later, McCain is put in solitary confinement and tortured to get him to confess to being an “air pirate”. Others have collaborated, will he?
John McCain has been in the news a lot this past year. Recently, he has sadly been diagnosed with a terminal illness and has been a key factor in defeating Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare. His handling of the illness and his vote against the repeal have been described as heroic. This contrasts with the comments by Donald Trump on the campaign trail last year where he questioned McCain’s heroism as a heroic prisoner of war. Even though McCain ran for President himself in 2008, most Americans probably were clueless of his prisoner of war past before Trump brought it up. If you want to know whether Trump’s assessment is accurate, you can watch this movie.
McCain obviously deserved a biopic treatment and A&E did the obligatory movie. It breaks no new ground in the field of laudatory biopics. The best word to describe it is “sincere”. However, it is not a hagiography. If you watch carefully, you can see the seeds of why some question McCain’s conduct as a POW. Not that the movie is critical of him. It simply attempts to reflect the honesty of the memoir it is based on. The movie is an accurate rendering of his POW experience, but under the constraints of a made-for-TV movie. Notably, the movie downplays the torture and deprivation by implying it more than depicting it. For instance, the leadup to McCain signing the statement where he admits to being an “air pirate” is not sufficient to justify his decision. The decision to dedicate much of the running time to the flashbacks was a poor one because it left less time for the prison camp scenes and also because it interrupts the flow of the movie. The scenes dedicated to his relationship with his father, his push-up baiting days at Annapolis, and his courtship of his wife are all biopic fodder and could have been replaced by a narrator telling us that McCain was a hotshot with daddy issues and a military wife. Boom, now let’s see his prisoner of war experience (which is what everyone is here for, right?).
The movie connects the dots and ends up as a movie you could show at a political convention. The acting is average, although Scott Glenn brings some gravitas to a stereotypical role. Shawn Hatosy is not memorable as McCain. The supporting cast is adequate. The cinematography stands out and makes up for the cheap feel of the film. The big problem is the movie is not gritty enough. His experience does not come off as particularly horrible. The script touches on the amnesty issue and in the process makes Overly the poster boy for prisoners who took the offer. It also throws in a reference to prisoners who collaborated. Neither issue is explored in depth. The movie is not really interested in controversy. Although, McCain apologizes to his father for his conduct, the movie does not delve into the Code of Conduct and how McCain might have broken it.
Does it make sense to say that a movie is must-see and yet it is not a very good movie? I think so. I don’t believe we are going to get another movie about John McCain, so this is it. You owe it to him to see what all the Trump-initiated fuss was all about. Of course, Trump would call it fake news. Since the movie does not air brush all the warts, I think it is safe to say that you will be able to make your own mind up whether he was a hero.
GRADE = C
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: John McCain was a Navy brat. His grandfather and father were admirals. His father rose to be Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet and eventually was given overall command of the Vietnam theater. The high school wresting scene was accurate, but I was not able to determine if the depiction of the senior McCain as something of a jerk is accurate. (I guess I need to read the memoir.) I would not be surprised if the military daddy/son trope is authentic. The scene where daddy McCain drops off John at Annapolis and wink/wink tells him not to obsess over grades is true to his father’s academic career. John did get in a lot of trouble at the Academy, but the movie downplays his popularity and his leadership ability. He did finish near the bottom of his class. He met Carol before graduation. Curiously, the movie does not have anything on his family. Carol already had two kids who John adopted and they had one of their own. By the way, Carol suffered a near fatal car accident when John was in prison and never fully recovered. She could not have danced with him when he returned. But then how would we have had that symbol of happily ever after at the end of the film?
McCain went to flight school and asked for combat duty. He was stationed on the USS Forrestal when an accidental missile launch caused explosions and fires that killed 134 men. He barely escaped with his life. The movie makes no mention of this tragic incident. In fact, the implication is that he was shot down on his first mission. He actually was on his twenty-third. He was hit by a SAM and bailed out, landing in a lake in Hanoi with broken arms and a broken leg. After being fished out, he was beaten by the rescuers and the crowd of understandably angry civilians. He was bayonetted in the process. He spent six weeks in a hospital and was given minimal treatment until it was discovered that he was the son of an admiral. To get that minimal treatment he did give some information, such as his target. As the movie shows, he gave the names of Green Bay Packers for his squadron mates. He was then placed in the cell with Day and Overly. Overly nursed the close to death McCain back to decent health. He did accept amnesty. The movie makes the point of Day disagreeing with Overly’s decision. This seems accurate. Day is legendary and deserves his own movie. He was one of the most recalcitrant prisoners and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts to avoid capture and his resistance to his captors. The movie does show him being tortured and he suffered some of the same treatment as McCain. (Day’s support for McCain in his runs for President tends to refute the claims that McCain’s experience was exaggerated and that he collaborated.) After being separated from Day, McCain spent two years in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, his father had been promoted to command all forces in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese upped the pressure on him to accept release for propaganda purposes. McCain was conforming to the Code of Conduct which says POWs should be released in order of capture date. They also tortured him to get him to make a statement, which he eventually did. He regretted this, but every man has a breaking point although the Code of Conduct did not allow wiggle room on this. The torture continued to get more statements, but he drew the line here. At one point, he attempted suicide, but was stopped by the guards. The movie does not show this. One thing the movie shows that I thought was ridiculous, but is based on truth, is McCain senior’s order to send B-52s to bomb Hanoi. I take back my LOL. McCain and the other prisoners did cheer the “Christmas Bombings”. Not long after, McCain and the others were released as the war ended for U.S. forces. He returned to Carol with permanent damage to his arms. He cannot lift them above his head to this day.