« Lazy Saturday Entry | Main | Defining Documentary »

October 3, 2004

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry

George Butler's sympathetic biographical documentary, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (IMDB), initially appears to be the perfect antidote to the cynical smear politics practiced by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth (SBVT). If you accept Butler's representation of Kerry's Veitnam service, then the SBVT charges are clearly false, or at least beside the point. We learn, among other things, that swiftboat duty was incredibly dangerous, with a 75 percent casualty rate. The swiftboats faced firefights on a daily basis, making it nearly impossible to claim that John Kerry's service was anything but courageous.

We also learn that Richard Nixon, clearly threatened by the charismatic young veteran, sought to sabatoge Kerry's young career, first by trying to find some "dirt" on him. Nixon aide Charles Colson, recognizing Kerry's appeal, comments on one of the infamous White House audio tapes that "We have to destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Nader" (best laugh line of the night). When they cannot find any dirt, Nixon recruits John O'Neill, now the leader of the SBVT, to question Kerry's reputation. To punctuate this point, Butler includes a segment from an episode of the Dick Cavett Show, in which Kerry and O'Neill debate. But Going Upriver is not interesting only as a campaign document. Most viewers of the film will already have made up their minds about Kerry before ever seing the film.

What I found most compelling about the film was the use of archival footage, including Super-8 film taken by Kerry and his crewmates on their swiftboat. These shots give Kerry's Vietnam experience a surprising immediacy, not only conveying what Max Cleland calls Vietnam's "beauty and terror," but also showing John Kerry to be a charismatic youth, capable of taking a principled stand at an early age. The Super-8 film footage, and other archival footage when Kerry returns to the United States, fascinated me throughout, and Butler carefully selects this footage to convey Kerry's heroics, both in Vietnam and later as a protestor. We see Kerry as engaged, thoughtful, and reflective, holding back the anger that seems to overwhelm many of his comrades, with Kerry's clean-cut demeanor contrasting their shaggy-haired appearance.

The film is also carefully structured to convey John Kerry's transformation from a Kennedy-inspired idealist who willingly fights for his country to a disillusioned veteran who returns to the United States to protest a war he sees as unjust, but while Kerry's political shift is contextualized in his participation in the Winter Soldier conference on wartime atrocities, as J. Hoberman observes, Going Upriver fails to emphasize that Kerry represented the view of thousands of soldiers returning from the war, turning a major cultural shift into a personal journey.

Throughout the film, we see very few contemporary images of Kerry, other than a brief montage of photographs at the film's end, including a shot of Kerry at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. In a sense, the film conveys the extent to which we still have yet to resolve the ghosts of the Vietnam War, and how those ghosts haunt our present war in Iraq. Following in the footsteps of Errol Morris's Fog of War, Going Upriver carefully chronicles Kerry's personal transformation during the Vietnam era, adding "a small, valuable contribution" to the continued efforts to make sense of the Vietnam War's effects on American life.

Posted by chuck at October 3, 2004 5:40 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)