'Upriver' vivifies Kerry's Vietnam

The Associated PressOctober 1, 2004 

Not that you'd expect a documentary to be fair and balanced -- the whole point of the genre is to shape opinion -- but "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry" plays like a 92-minute campaign ad for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Director George Butler has been friends with Kerry for 40 years, so as you'd imagine, he paints a loving portrait of a dedicated, natural leader during the Vietnam War and a dedicated, natural leader of veterans who protested the war after coming home.

The closest Butler comes to unearthing even the slightest critical word is when Douglas Brinkley, author of "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War," describes the young Navy man's immediate desire to command a Swift boat the first time he sees one. The anecdote merely speaks to the future Massachusetts senator's ambition, which has never exactly been a secret, and isn't such a bad thing.

Butler's unlimited access yields a mind-blowing amount of archival photographs and film footage, but what's truly effective is the way he lets the images speak for themselves, rather than manipulating them in a maudlin fashion.

The filmmaker-photographer -- who previously showed a keen eye for recognizing potential with his 1977 documentary "Pumping Iron," about a then-unknown bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger -- begins with home movies of Kerry as a boy, interviews his brother and sister, and evokes Kerry's exuberant first days at Yale University. (As roommate Harvey Bundy recalls, "John was always doing something.")

At the urging of Bundy's uncle, William, Kerry enlisted in the Navy, and frequently found himself the target of gunfire on Vietnamese rivers. He was wounded three times and earned a Silver Star.

"Every day, John Kerry made decisions that saved the lives of the crew of that boat," remembered one man who served alongside him.

You'll hear lots of quotes like that in the film. Over and over. You'll also see the young, dark-haired Kerry looking surprisingly handsome, shirtless in the sunshine and holding a puppy in his lap, like some shimmering vision from an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue. (You won't, however, hear from Kerry himself, today. He declined to be interviewed for the film, which was probably smart -- doing otherwise might have looked like an infomercial.)

Butler, working with writer Joseph Dorman, included color-saturated, slow-motion aerial footage of nighttime explosions over the deep, lush jungles, as well as grainy shots of some soldiers weeping while others are placed in body bags.

But the images that follow are even more powerful, perhaps for the pure simplicity of their emotion. Once Kerry came home, he found himself questioning what the United States was doing in Vietnam, and became active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In April 1971, the group organized a weeklong demonstration in Washington, where more than a thousand veterans shared stories, camped outside and lobbied their congressmen.

The most stirring moment of the week consisted of veterans, one by one, lobbing their ribbons and medals -- and various pieces of clothing, boots and photographs -- over a wall that had been built in front of the Capitol steps. (Kerry is shown joining in, though Butler explains in the film's press notes that he tossed his ribbons, which represented his medals.)

Kerry made an even more high-profile appearance when he was asked to testify on the group's behalf before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Television coverage identified him as "John Kerry -- Former Gunboat Commander." Dressed in olive, his hair appropriately long for the period but not all-out hippieish, the 27-year-old spoke confidently and eloquently about the horrors he and his fellow veterans endured in Vietnam.

The address made him a star. It also made him a target of the Nixon administration.

"He looks like a Kennedy, he talks exactly like a Kennedy," chief of staff H.R. Haldeman tells an obviously paranoid President Nixon in an audio recording.

If that guy were running for president, MTV wouldn't need to air Rock the Vote promos between episodes of "Cribs" to lure young people to the polls.

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