`Going Upriver': not just campaign film

Focus is on Kerry, fighting in war, fighting the war

MovieReview

October 01, 2004|By Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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 Kerry's Swift boat during the Vietnam War or, at the very most, only until the race for the White House between Kerry and President Bush is decided next month.

And because the movie, 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. Such 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, which consists of interviews with friends, family and Yale classmates about what a great young person Kerry was, are pleasant but uninspired, as is a photo-montage during the closing credits that brings the man's image up to date with a string of photographs taken by Butler over the decades.

Going Upriver puts most of its focus on a very brief period in Kerry's life: his time in Vietnam in 1968-1969 and his association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which culminated in a mass action by that group in Washington in April 1971.

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 searing memory of a dead Viet Cong in a blue shirt, we get to see it on film.

And, for those 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 weren't for Kerry, gunner's mate Fred Short says tartly, "I'd be on a wall somewhere."

Still, it is in the film's dealings with the Washington event 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.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Going Upriver

Documentary directed by George Butler

Released by ThinkFilm

Unrated

Time 90 minutes

Sun Score ***

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