|Thursday, May 28, 2015, 12:52:20 PM|
Thursday, September 30, 2004
Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
Casualty of war: Going Upriver is much more than a Kerry love-fest
By Anthony Del Valle
"You can't understand John Kerry unless you understand what Vietnam was to him," a friend intones at the beginning of George Butler's documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. And for the next 90 minutes we get a fascinating look back at one of the most divisive times in American history.
There are two obvious traps in a movie like this, and they're worth getting out of the way immediately. First, the great background subject (the war) sometimes dwarfs what's supposed to be the main topic. There are times we wish Butler would stop interrupting the story of 'Nam to talk about Kerry; the candidate simply doesn't seem as important.
Secondly, Butler sanctifies his subject. There's not a single human being who has anything convincing to say against Kerry, and, as with Fahrenheit 9/11, and Uncovered: The War on Iraq, and Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, it's only natural for the intelligent viewer to want to fight this one-sidedness. We think, "There has to be something Butler's not telling us."
What makes this film a gem, though, is its ability to capture the mood of the nation in the early '70s. Much of the movie consists of head-shot interviews interspersed with news footage. (There are also some amusing Nixon tapes in which we hear the president expressing concern about Kerry's budding celebrityhood.) There's an innocence, a purity in intention that radiates from the veterans interviewed that one rarely sees in a documentary. It's nearly impossible not to be moved by how gallantly some of the speakers struggle to remember years later catastrophic events they have yet to understand.
Though it's never mentioned, Butler's goal is, obviously, to negate the image the Bush campaign has tried to create of a privileged rich boy who has exaggerated his war record. The director spends just enough time on the childhood and college years to show us the influences that encouraged Kerry to become a leader. He was no radical. When the war in Vietnam came calling, it was only natural for him to want to enlist. As writer and friend Neil Sheehan notes, "He saw himself as a liberator."
There's a good hunk of war footage as Kerry slowly comes to see the conflict as immoral. The bulk of the film deals with his culture shock when he returns home to a hostile America whose young people think of veterans as murderers. His contact with other ex-soldiers who are even more emotionally lost than he is motivates him to become part of the anti-war movement. It isn't an easy decision. He's let it be known he wants to go into politics, and back in 1970, as one friend puts it, you couldn't be both an anti-war protester and a politician. Kerry was allowing himself to become an outsider, and that wasn't a role he was accustomed to playing.
Butler's footage is so strong that you feel as though there's only one decision Kerry could have made. The director's ability to show us Kerry's gradually changing mindset makes this an unusual documentary in that its central character goes on a full dramatic journey. When we see Kerry join scores of others in throwing away his war medals during a Washington protest, we're with him; not necessarily in political terms (that depends on your beliefs) but in human terms. It seems the right dramatic ending for this story about a man who is trying to learn what morality is all about.
Going Upriver is not necessarily an intelligent political film; it's too limited in scope for that. But it is a compelling, human one. It's a reminder of how much more important individual conscience is than government policy.