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A pivotal period in the life of John F. Kerry

Although parts feel like a campaign film, 'Going Upriver' is best when it looks at his Vietnam and antiwar activities.

October 01, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

If ever a film seemed to come with the kind of expiration date you find on dairy products, "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry" would appear to be it. But many of the things that look obvious about this new documentary turn out to be anything but.

Directed by George Butler, a friend of the subject for 40 years, "Going Upriver" sounds as if it would be of interest only in its treatment of the recent brouhaha surrounding what happened in John F. Kerry's Swift boat during the Vietnam War or, at the very most, only until the race for the White House between Democratic challenger Kerry President Bush is decided in little more than a month.

And because the movie, written by Joseph Dorman and based on Douglas Brinkley's book "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War," was put together by Kerry loyalists, it's been confused in some quarters with a Kerry campaign film. All these suppositions, it turns out, are some distance from the truth.

There are minor elements to "Going Upriver" that do have that campaign-film feeling. The opening section -- interviews with friends, family and Yale classmates about what a great young person Kerry was -- are pleasant but uninspired, as is a photomontage accompanying the closing credits that brings the man's image up to date with a string of photographs taken by Butler over the decades.

But the advantage "Going Upriver" has is that most of it focuses on a very brief period in Kerry's life: his time in Vietnam in 1968-69 and his association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which culminated in a mass action by that group in Washington, D.C., in April 1971. Looking in depth at such a pivotal period in recent American history creates an interest that goes well beyond who gets into the White House.

Although Kerry was not interviewed for the film, he supplied Butler with Super-8 footage that he took in Vietnam and, in 1970, talked with him about the war on audiotape. This gives us an unusually specific and involving idea of what combat was like for one individual. When Kerry talks about a particularly searing memory of a dead Viet Cong in a blue shirt, we get to see it on film.

And, for those who are still twisting in the wind about the Swift boat incident, interviews with the people whose lives Kerry saved don't leave much doubt that something valiant was done. If it wasn't for Kerry, gunner's mate Fred Short says tartly, "I'd be on a wall somewhere."

More compelling still is the footage of Kerry's involvement in the antiwar veterans group, which Butler recorded because he saw political promise in Kerry's future. He went with him to Detroit for the 1971 "Winter Soldier" event, where Vietnam veterans for the first time told powerful stories of their agonizing experiences. And his film makes the point, which may yet prove true, that Kerry put his future political career at risk by taking an antiwar stance because he believed it to be correct.

It is in the film's dealings with the Washington, D.C., event, recorded in detail by Butler and supplemented by recent interviews with veterans in attendance, that "Going Upriver" is most involving. We gain a greater understanding of who participated, why they were there and what they did, and we see so much verite footage that we almost feel as if we were on-site ourselves. It's a rare opportunity to perceive more fully the roiling emotions behind such still-controversial events as the veterans' return of medals.

Kerry was one of the key organizers of the event, and the one tapped by then-Sen. J. William Fulbright to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His speech, still galvanizing today, was the event that made him a national figure.

But it is one of the paradoxes of "Going Upriver" that it does not fill you with partisan zeal. Rather, it puts you in a reflective, even melancholy mood, triggering the consideration of broader questions of where our society has gone and where it still might be going.

It's hard to hear President Johnson say of Vietnam, "If this little country goes down the drain, what's going to happen to all the other little countries?" without thinking of Iraq. It's hard not to witness what a superhuman effort it took to get the U.S. out of Vietnam without worrying if we will ever be able to extricate ourselves from Iraq, no matter who is president. It's hard not to witness the humanity of Walter Cronkite shedding an involuntary tear at the assassination of President Kennedy without wondering how we ended up with the hooligans who polarize the current-events business today.

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