An unprecedented amount of politically motivated documentaries hit U.S. theaters and DVD retail outlets when the 2004 Presidential election approached. Although Michael Moore's work grabbed the lion's share of media attention and box office receipts at that time for political films, Fahrenheit 9/11 is hardly a documentary and Moore steadfastly asserts that he uses documentary style footage to create his political op ed piece. In contrast, ThinkFilm documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry served as a direct and rational political ad that counters the shameless muckraking of John O'Neill's “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.”
O'Neill is singled out near the end of the film as one of Nixon's duplicitous puppets, as Charles Colson recruits him to smear Kerry when they can't find any dirt on the young leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Kerry makes mincemeat of the simplistic O’Neill on The Dick Cavett Show, so O'Neill's recent mean spirited ad campaign certainly appears to be little more than bitter grapes and continuation of Nixon's dirty tricks tactics. The Machiavellian methods are well known—spread unfounded rumors to put a candidate on the defense so that he can' focus on his message. It's just sad that too many Americans continue to be duped by this transparent practice when a little digging reveals the truth; thus, far more people know about O'Neill's 30 second spot than will ever see this 90 minute film.
Indeed, when I approached my local 24 screen multi-plex for a ticket, the pimply faced cashier quizzically peer at me and asked “Without a Paddle”? Even though Going Upriver had been screening there for five days, the clueless lad apparently had never sold a ticket to the documentary since he explained that he’d never heard of it. I had to explain to him that it was the John Kerry movie and that it was listed on the marquee before he finally consulted his computer screen to issue the ticket. Shunted off to the far end of the multi-plex, I inadvertently walked into a private screening, so it's remarkable that the film is finding any theatrical venues at all—it's definitely more suitable for small screens. Given its “pro-Kerry” context, it would have to play as “info-mercial” on regular television, but it will be making its way to DVD three weeks before the election.
Based on Douglas Brinkley's book Tour of Duty, director George Butler (Pumping Iron and Endurance) succinctly summarizes John Kerry's early years and Vietnam tour before dealing in depth with his role with the VVAW and their landmark 1971 protest in Washington D.C. and Kerry's five minutes of fame before the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations. Although the initial portions are composed of very rough “home movie” footage (interspersed with cogent interview clips with Kerry acquaintances and Vietnam veterans (including Max Cleland), the tightly constructed scenes beginning with Vietnam flow naturally and provide a surprisingly candid portrait of the future Senator.
Like an eerie nostalgic time capsule, the film took me back to the anti-war protests of the period where angry rhetoric and shouted slogans were the norm. Kerry, however, represents a much saner, balanced, and rational segment and contrasted 180 degrees with the unshaven, long haired rebels usually often chronicled by the media. A thoughtful intellectual soul, deeply disturbed by U.S. policy and conduct in Vietnam, Kerry was handpicked by Senator William Fulbright to present the veteran’s case against the war——in essence to represent the entire peace movement—before his influential committee. Kerry's rhetoric and presence draws universal respect, even from within the White House, where President Nixon recognizes him as a rising “star” in the same Massachusetts tradition of the Kennedys.
Like Oliver Stone's Platoon, Butler's film establishes how Vietnam served as a crucible for John Kerry in his formative years—and not just for Kerry, but for numerous other veterans and for the country itself as it grappled with its errant judgment for getting involved in a conflict that posed no threats to the U.S. We always claim to study history to avoid the mistakes of the past, yet it seems that we are even more prone to repeating them. Many of Kerry's public statements before the subcommittee about U.S. hypocrisy and how U.S. leaders like McNamara had deserted the troops play out ironically, as does his closing remarks:
“And so when thirty years from now our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but mean instead where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”
Well, it is over thirty years later now, and the Great Mandella once again reverberates in the Middle East while political tricksters attempt to besmirch a stellar record. Butler’s well constructed documentary paints an especially vivid picture about the VVAW that will be seen by a few more people than ordinarily might have viewed since John Kerry plays a central role. Relying heavily on archive material, it presents a compelling story without fancy gimmicks and trickery. Unfortunately, it will never receive the same notoriety as the pack of lies generated by O’Neill and his Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but real truth seekers now have a viable resource with Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.