Published at: Sept. 26, 2004, 4:29 a.m. CST by headgeek
It is a fascinating time for the documentary. I’ve never seen such a time in film history / political history where feature length film documentaries centered around the two political figures that the nation would have to decide between in November were being made. Recently – I’ve been being deluged with them regarding this upcoming election. Most of the documentaries are fairly aggressive anti-Bush films. Films centering on alleged scandals and misconduct. I’ve got what seems like a whole shelf of this stuff. They’re filled with hints of conspiracy, unanswered questions and a whole lot of depressing views about what has been going on in recent history here in the last 4-10 years in the United States.
When I received the tape of GOING UPRIVER: THE LONG WAR OF JOHN KERRY, I wasn’t really certain what to make of it. I assumed it would begin with his early life, take me through his Vietnam experiences, the protest movement against that war and finally his political life as a Senator. I figured, this would be a campaign film.
Instead, what director GEORGE BUTLER has made is a fascinating documentary about a transformation in a man caught by the Kennedy dream of “ask what you can do for your country,” signed up to fight the communists in Vietnam, began to see the truth of that war and felt that his duty to his country and fellow soldiers was to try and help end the war. Basically – that’s what this documentary is about.
Now George Butler is responsible for two truly great documentaries in my point of view prior to this film. The first being the amazingly frank look at the world of Bodybuilding with PUMPING IRON. Then in 2000, he made a fantastic documentary called ENDURANCE: SHACKELTON’S LEGENDARY ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION – which may end up being adapted into a narrative gigantic budgeted feature film from Hollywood at some point, if what I hear is so. Neither of these films are particularly politically sensitive, though Arnie’s ascendance to the office of Governor of California, makes his PUMPING IRON film slightly politically sensitive, especially given the candor in which he caught Arnold’s less… shall we say, humble elements. The main thing is, George Butler isn’t just some hack documentarian for hire.
At no point in the film does it mention Kerry’s candidacy for President of the United States, however – what is unsaid in so many words is demonstrated by the power of the narrative of this documentary is John Kerry’s leadership ability, at least so far as it was demonstrated in this period of his life.
Now, we all know the power of film to craft a convincing argument for or against someone, this film is definitely pro-Kerry… but I hold it would be pretty hard for a sensible person to really be negative about this era in John Kerry’s life.
The Vietnam part of the documentary is frankly pretty brutal. It lays out what the mission of the Swift Boats in Vietnam were. There’s testimony by those that recommended Kerry for medals at the time he earned them. Men, who claim he saved their lives, including one while Kerry was in fact wounded. Whether or not these events happened exactly as these men claimed they happened is surely up for debate these days, every bit as much as the idea that the sky is falling these days… but it sure seems that people that would probably know best what John Kerry did on his swift boat in Vietnam… well, I’d like to think it would be the men that were actually on his swift boat… or the man he pulled out of the river while he himself was wounded. But frankly – this isn’t the stuff that impressed me in the documentary.
Instead, what I found absolutely captivating was what John Kerry did when he came back to the United States. The footage of John’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is incredibly powerful. I’ve seen blurry photos of John testifying used in Anti-Kerry ads, but muted of course. As if to lump him in with the foul mouth protests of them there hippies. Instead, his testimony is one of the most eloquent and dignified statements I’ve seen from a Senate testimony. Throughout his time shown at this period of his life, he is shown to be the moderate steady hand that lead the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). He wasn’t speaking out against the soldiers, but in fact FOR THE SOLDIERS. To put an end to the war. His statement about Nixon not wanting to be the first U.S. President to lose a war, in comparison to having to ask how one can ask a soldier to be the last man to die for a mistake… well, that’s powerful.
Seeing the Republican Senator praising his statements and offering to help put an end to this war showed his ability to reach across partisan lines and to eloquently and intelligently make a bridge between what was seen as a ‘counter-culture’ movement and the very foundations of leadership in this country. Kerry remained clean shaven and well kept through this period as to not alienate those whom he felt needed to hear the message of those trying to end a terrible period of American history. In fact his statement before that Senate Foreign Relations Committee was so good, that when Nixon asked Haldeman about it, Haldeman said that Kerry reminded him of a Kennedy, that he looked like and spoke like a Kennedy… and frankly, I would agree. I never thought I would ever agree with a Haldeman assessment, but there it is.
The parts of this documentary where fellow Vietnam Vet protesters discuss how angry they were and how calming Kerry was, how he felt it was incredibly important to remain peaceful in their protests, even if provoked, as to not discredit the messages they were trying to give to the nation and its leaders. It was quite comforting to see a leader of restraint.
So – How did this documentary make me feel about John Kerry? Well, it made me anxious to see the upcoming debates between him and President Bush for one. On David Brinkley’s show when he was asked to face his opposition, well… personally he skinned them alive, with nothing more than poise and a more intelligent response.
To see a man that not only knows the meaning and cost of those serving this country, but to also understand what it means to protest a war that continues to put those you served with in danger. That he didn’t just go back to the states and leave everything he experienced behind, but that he held on to it, and used it to try to put an end to the danger his fellow soldiers were continuing to endure, by lobbying and exercising his rights to speak and protest. Well, that’s a leader that deserves serious consideration.
The film opens on October 1st, but there will also be free downloads and free dvds being distributed of this film. It’s worth a look. Here’s the Trailer for the Film! And to find out about where the film is being released and how you can see it, check out the official site at GoingUpRiver.Com!