[i]Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry[/i], loosely based on Douglas Brinkley?s [i]Tour of Duty[/i], is the latest in a series of political documentaries intended to educate, enlighten, and more importantly, impact the upcoming general election. Despite its unapologetically partisan, hagiographic approach, [i]Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry[/i] is an engaging, perceptive chronicle of the young John Kerry, Yale graduate, decorated Navy officer in the Vietnam War, and later, an outspoken anti-war critic. His later career, however, as a public prosecutor, Lt. Governor (Massachusetts), and twenty years of service in the United States Senate, is briefly covered in a series of stills unveiled in the end credits (presumably John Kerry?s subsequent years will be covered in a separate documentary if he?s elected president of the United States).
George Butler, a filmmaker with a distinguished career in directing documentaries (e.g., [i]Pumping Iron[/i] and [i] The Endurance: Shackleton?s Legendary Antarctic Expedition[/i]), became acquainted with John Kerry in 1969, and began to photograph Kerry as he become a vocal, eloquent critic of the Vietnam War and the public spokesman of the VVAW. Butler?s photography also covered Kerry?s later, unsuccessful campaigns for Congress, as well as more intimate moments with Kerry and his family and friends. Butler?s relationship with John Kerry grew into a long-term friendship, which allowed him access to Kerry?s private papers, letters, journals, and home movies. His resources extended to Kerry?s friends, ex-shipmates, and immediate family, but not to John Kerry himself, who?s noticeably absent from the documentary. Kerry?s decision not to be interviewed is left unexplained.
Through newsreel footage, archival film, home movies, black-and-white/color photographs, and interviews with friends, family, his former swift boat crew, and other anti-war activists, [i]Going Upriver[/i] explores John Kerry?s formative experiences, from his family background (via home movies), to his college attendance at Yale University, to volunteering for military service in the United States Navy, through two tours of duty (the second one shortened by his third Purple Heart), and later, to his growing involvement in the Vietnam Veterans Against War (VVAW) group as an organizer and public spokesman.
Not surprisingly, the young Kerry was interested in politics (his father was a diplomat), and in a political career (interviewed as an undergraduate at Yale, he speaks idealistically, if no less eloquently, about commitment and public service). Butler also acquired photographs and footage of Kerry during his military service in Vietnam, when he served as the commander of a swift boat in the Da Nang Province and later in the Mekong Delta. As the archival footage and interviews attest, swift boat duty was incredibly hazardous, with the swift boats subject to multiple, daily attacks from shore (with a 75% casualty rate). The swift boats themselves were lightly armed and lightly armored, originally intended for coastal duty, and not combat. Their orders were changed from coastal duty to service along the 5,000 miles of rivers inside the Mekong Delta. Their role was to explicitly draw fire from shore, and in turn, return fire, and where necessary, destroy the huts and boats that lined the shorelines. The swift boats rarely had air cover, and their noisy engines invited confrontation and arms fire. Kerry, along with other swift boat commanders, objected to the roles of the swift boats (as well as their potential, negative impact on the Vietnamese), without success. Butler covers Kerry?s heroism and bravery, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star (and three Purple Hearts), perfunctorily. Here, the contemporary evidence (i.e., naval records), underscored by present-day interviews, leaves little room for doubt or challenge.
Instead, Butler turns his focus to Kerry?s growing disillusionment, upon his return from Vietnam, with government policy toward Vietnam. Kerry?s anti-war views were hardened by his participation as an observer (and later moderator) in the Winter Soldier Investigation, held in Detroit, Michigan during January and February, 1971. Before cameras, journalists, and a public audience, 150 former Vietnam veterans, all honorably discharged, some highly decorated, recounted their wartime experiences, including their complicity in war crimes, either as direct participants or witnesses. For many, testifying before other veterans and an audience was a difficult, but cathartic experience. For Kerry, his experience as both moderator and witness led to a deeper involvement with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He played a significant role in organizing a weeklong demonstration and an illegal camp-in in April 1971 in Washington, D.C. This demonstration was generally known as the Dewey Canyon III demonstration, in reference to the then-contemporary invasion of Laos (the initial incursion into Laos in 1969 was commonly known as Dewey Canyon I). The goal of the organizers was to call attention to the experiences and opinions of the Vietnam veterans, and to call for an immediate end to the war through unilateral withdrawal of ground troops and an end to bombing.
The Dewey Canyon III demonstration was, to a large extent, unprecedented: a large-scale (over 1,100 veterans), mostly peaceful, act of civil disobedience during wartime. During the course of the week, the veterans visited Arlington Cemetery, met with Congressional representatives, and camped on the Capitol Mall without a legal permit. One hundred and ten veterans were arrested after a peaceful protest on the steps of the Supreme Court building. For John Kerry, Dewey Canyon III culminated in an impromptu testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the fourth day of the demonstration (at the invitation of Senator William F. Fulbright, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime anti-war critic). For the other Vietnam War veterans, the demonstration culminated with a deeply symbolic expression of their overwhelming opposition to the war, the rejection of their medals and citations (the veterans threw their medals over a makeshift wall erected the previous night). Butler, however, leaves unanswered whether Kerry threw his own medals over the wall or, as he claims now, the medals of another veteran who couldn?t attend, as well as his own ribbons.
For Kerry, his role as organizer and public spokesman for the VVAW had taken him to the corridors of power and to public notoriety. [i]Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry[/i] concludes with Kerry?s interviews on nightly news and interview programs, including a now infamous joint interview with John O?Neill on [i]The Dick Cavett Show[/i], which sparked a heated debate about war crimes, extrication, and an end to the Vietnam War (Kerry favored immediate, unilateral withdrawal, O?Neill favored the Nixon/Kissinger approach of ?peace with honor?). O?Neill, another swift boat commander and, thus, Vietnam veteran, was handpicked by the Nixon White (specifically Charles Colson, one of Nixon?s aides known for his ?dirty tricks?) to front another veterans ?group,? the Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, whose miniscule membership belied O?Neill?s public exposure. O?Neill, alas, recently resurfaced as the co-founder of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth organization, O?Neill is also the co-writer of [i]Unfit to Command[/i], which purports to present evidence that John F. Kerry?s medals and awards were unjustly obtained (the claims in the book and made by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group have since been debunked by first the blogosphere, then the alternative press, and finally the mainstream media, but not without cost to Kerry?s reputation and character).
[i]Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry[/i], if it has any flaws at all, is in the failure to present the more intimate, private side of John Kerry. Certainly, Butler attempts to ameliorate that objection by inserting still photographs of John Kerry at home or with his family throughout the film and the end credits, but that approach leaves the audience perpetually on the outside looking in. Perhaps Butler was only following John Kerry's preferences on this issue. Nevertheless, [i]Going Upriver[/i] offers a fascinating examination of John Kerry?s early (and continuing) commitment to public service and liberal ideals, despite the potential impact to his burgeoning political career (anti-war activism was, at the time, considered an obstacle to running for federal office, even at the congressional level). For that alone, [i]Going Upriver[/i] is worthwhile viewing, regardless of the results of the upcoming general election.