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Back to Kerry's Vietnam

In 'Going Upriver,' a friend documents a slice of the candidate's life.

September 18, 2004|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — The word "Iraq" is mentioned only once in passing during George Butler's new documentary, "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," which was shown at the film festival here. But it's there, hovering in the air like a ghost, haunting this 90-minute film virtually from start to finish.

Iraq is there in the film's scenes from the Winter Soldier Investigation hearings in Detroit in 1971, when Vietnam veterans publicly confessed to rapes, murders and mutilations. It is inescapably there when a soldier shows a photograph of himself in Vietnam and says shamefully, "That's me, holding a dead body, smiling."

It is there when the movie chronicles 1968's Tet offensive, the surprise assault on South Vietnamese cities and American troops by North Vietnamese, a turning point in American attitudes about whether the war in Vietnam had a definable objective and could even be won.

And it is there when President Nixon proclaims with confidence that the "American people will support the war if they are told why we are there."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Kerry's antiwar activities -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about a new advertising campaign criticizing John F. Kerry's antiwar activities said that in a 1971 speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry talked about private meetings he had attended the previous May in Paris with representatives from the U.S.-backed South and communist North Vietnamese governments. Kerry referred only to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong-associated negotiators during his Senate appearance.

While the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam are striking, this is not, ostensibly, a movie about that. It is a love letter of a movie about John Kerry by a filmmaker who has known and admired the Democratic presidential candidate since they were young men. "Going Upriver" focuses on a narrow slice of Kerry's life, his transformation from Navy Swift boat commander in the Mekong Delta in late 1968 and early 1969 to leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971, which catapulted him to national fame.

The film has Super 8 footage that was shot by Kerry in Vietnam and, strikingly, an audio interview that Butler conducted with Kerry in 1970 that matches the footage. For instance, Kerry filmed a dead Viet Cong soldier lying in a field, and an American soldier torching a hut, both recounted as indelible memories by Kerry in that 1970 conversation. Using Kerry's several hours of footage, as well as film shot by Wade Sanders, who later became an undersecretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration, Butler was able to piece together what he calls "the story of the river war." There are no reenactments in the film, Butler said.

Inevitably, the documentary, loosely based on historian Douglas Brinkley's laudatory Kerry biography "Tour of Duty," will be perceived by some as a piece of campaign propaganda or as a response to accusations leveled by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has run ads challenging the nominee on his Vietnam record.

Some news reports have suggested that Butler altered the film at the last minute to refute the attacks on Kerry, which Butler denied. "The problem with these documentary films is that they look chaotic until the very last moment," he said. "If anyone had influence on me making the film, it was the five or six editors who were working with me."

An executive of ThinkFilm, the movie's distributor agreed: "A few weeks ago, it was longer," said Mark Urman, who heads U.S. operations for the Toronto-based firm. "There was much more biographical stuff -- his mother, father, education, general information about his background. It was breathtaking for me to see in the space of the last two weeks, to see the movie become something that spoke louder and could be heard amid the din of what had transpired."

To be sure, the film has been used for political purposes: Butler has allowed the pro-Kerry independent political group MoveOn.org to include a short clip from his movie -- interviews with boat mate Del Sandusky and Jim Rassmann, who credits Kerry with saving his life in Vietnam -- on a DVD that was part of a recent mass political mailing.

A spokesman for President Bush's re-election campaign responded with sarcasm when asked for a comment about "Going Upriver." "Oh, how shocking," Reed Dickens said. "A film about Vietnam."

Urman said ThinkFilm is prohibited by federal election law from advertising the movie on television and radio for its Oct. 1 opening in 200 theaters across the country. Executive producers Bill Samuels and Vin Roberti said Friday that they are working right now to develop "an aggressive viral campaign on the Internet," as Samuels put it, and that the DVD should be in stores by Oct. 19.

When Butler introduced the film Tuesday night at its Toronto Film Festival world premiere, he said the movie had just been finished that morning.

In an interview here, Butler said the movie had "evolved enormously" since its inception. In 2002, he'd conceived of a documentary that would tell the story of Kerry's life from cradle to (potentially) his ascendancy to the White House. As the campaign took its twists and turns, so did the film. In the summer of 2003, Butler left the country to research a movie on lowland gorillas in the Congo. When he returned, however, Kerry's prospects were looking bleak. "When I got back," Butler said, "his campaign was a disaster. At one point he was below Al Sharpton in the polls."

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