This review was corrected on Sept. 15, 2004
Sen. John Kerry’s activities related to the Vietnam War are given a sober, detailed coverage in “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.” Worthwhile viewing in light of the swift boat controversies and assorted attempts to discredit the Democratic presidential candidate, docu by longtime Kerry pal George Butler is in no way a hot-headed or contentious piece of agit-prop, unlike so many other election year documentaries; like Kerry himself, the film speaks to the mind, not the emotions. ThinkFilm is set to open the rapidly made picture on 200 screens or more on Oct. 1, with subsequent distribution plans for the rest of the month still being plotted.
While obviously made to support the candidate and remove doubts about his record and character that have been planted and/or stirred up by his opponents, docu does not have either a defensive tone or the feeling of an urgent rallying cry. Pic instead plays like a calm, methodical explanation of Kerry’s youth, the specifics of his service in Vietnam (supported by surprisingly extensive film footage of the lieutenant in the war), his subsequent change of heart and his leadership of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (also very well documented).
Butler, who made Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name with “Pumping Iron” and most recently made “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition,” has known Kerry for 40 years and has been photographing him since 1969. Indeed, Kerry’s life has been pretty well documented from the beginning, as shown by early home movies (mostly of him playing sports) up through his Yale years.
The coverage continued in Vietnam. Pic briefly sketches the basics of the conflict and notes how Kerry, like others initially inspired by JFK’s “ask what you can do for your country” theme, felt he would be doing the right thing by enlisting. An impressive group of former fellow soldiers, acquaintances and commentators explain what the young man did in Nam. They tell how the type of river patrols Kerry and others commanded on swift boats were so dangerous they had casualty rates of 75% and higher, how he received a Silver Star for pursuing and killing an enemy soldier armed with a portable rocket launcher, and how, as the rescued man himself tells it on camera, Kerry saved the life of Special Services vet James Rassmann by pulling him out of the water after an explosion blasted him overboard.
Accompanying color footage provides a vivid look at what swift boats were like and how thoroughly exposed they were to fire from the river banks. Kerry isn’t actually glimpsed in combat, but is nonetheless captured in quite a bit of mundane if, under the circumstances, intriguing 16mm material from Nam.
Bulk of the film, however, is devoted to what Kerry did when he got home. Disillusioned by the war and convinced that no purpose would be served by more Americans losing their lives in Southeast Asia, Kerry took up the anti-war cause, eventually serving as the lead spokesman for the large protest by vets in Washington in April 1971. Event attracted the attention of policymakers (as well as the Nixon White House, which attempted to disrupt it), and was capped by a riveting appearance by then-27-year-old Kerry before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Dressed in combat fatigues and speaking with remarkable maturity and power, Kerry makes as eloquent a case against the government’s continued pursuit of the war as one could imagine; even his opponents would have to concede the forcefulness of his statement, while even his supporters will have to wonder why he doesn’t generally speak as effectively today.
Some excerpted bits from the Nixon tapes finds H.R. Halderman saying of Kerry, “He’s a Kennedy-type guy. He looks like a Kennedy and he sounds like a Kennedy.” Another section makes it clear the White House was looking to get some dirt on Kerry, but Charles Colson tells his boss he could find “nothing on him.”
What Colson did find, however, was John O’Neill, co-author of the current anti-Kerry bestseller “Unfit for Command,” who was set up by the administration to head an alternate group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace and, in a fascinating clip, is seen here appearing with Kerry on “The Dick Cavett Show.” The enmity goes way, way back.
Also powerful, if perhaps over-extended, is footage of many vets tossing their military medals over a fence near the Capitol, something Kerry did as well.
Pic acknowledges that some of Kerry’s colleagues in the anti-war movement resented him because he remained presentable, well-groomed and socially couth. The subtext here is that Kerry always had his eye on a political future and knew it didn’t behoove him to get down, dirty and rowdy like his cohorts, most of whom looked like Hell’s Angels by the time of the Washington protest.
In the end, “Going Upriver” provides a clearer picture of Kerry’s decisive early adulthood than most Americans are likely to possess and crucially reveals a young man willing and able to make principled moral decisions, both to fight in the war and then, with experience behind him, to oppose it. Whether these insights into the candidate’s character change any votes come November is anyone’s guess, but they are helpful additions to the overall portrait of him available to the public.