The good lieutenant

Kerry documentary portrays a young hero

Oct 6, 2004 at 12:00 am

Americans on the left bank of our divided society have enjoyed a visual feast in political film this election year; highlights include Uncovered: The War in Iraq, The Control Room, Silver City, Bush’s Brain and Michael Moore’s potentially vote-grabbing Farenheit 9/11. Now add to the list Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, a documentary that follows the Democratic presidential hopeful from his days at Yale to his heroic four months in the Vietnam War — in which he was wounded three times and for which he received three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star — to his equally noble protest of the war when he came back to America. Relying mostly on actual footage and interviews with friends and war comrades, it’s a must-see for anyone with questions about the character or service of John Kerry; no matter what your views, it’s hard to argue with the actions, words and disposition of Kerry during a time of chaos and fear.

Though the film appears to be a direct response to the attacks on Kerry’s war record made in John O’Neill’s best seller, Unfit for Command, the moviemaker, George T. Butler, has been quoted as saying his film was in the works before the book came out. Among Butler’s documentation is an audiotape of a conversation involving President Nixon revealing that O’Neill, leader of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, was recruited by the Nixon administration to discredit Kerry. Thirty years later, O’Neill is still at it.

Released nationally the day after the first presidential debate, Going Upriver is clearly meant to bolster public opinion for the man Republicans have painted as a “waffler” who changes his mind as the political wind blows; if nothing else the movie illustrates a man who risked everything — twice — to fight for his beliefs.

Going Upriver paints an exuberant Yale student who didn’t have a lot of money. (Kerry worked at a bottling plant and a friend is quoted saying the senator “still owes me money.”) The diplomat’s son jumped from one student leadership activity to the next before volunteering to go to Vietnam. There, he volunteered to command a swift boat on the Mekong Delta.

Coming home after one too many injuries, he became an unlikely leader and spokesman for thousands of vets demanding an end to the war. Kerry was clean-cut and well-spoken, unlike his more raggedy comrades; but like them, he threw his ribbons over a fence in protest.

Kerry’s protest leadership was sparked during a meeting at a Howard Johnson’s in Detroit in which vets “confessed” their war crimes and experiences; the meetings became a national phenomenon that evolved into Kerry’s Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

His shining moment, and a very moving one to watch, is Kerry’s testimony in front of a packed congressional room in which he uttered his famous line, “How do you ask a man to die for a mistake?” Several minutes of the testimony were televised nationally, prompting backlash by the Nixon administration.

Sadly, America today seems just as divided as the America of Kerry’s youth — his famous words back then cause people to love or to hate him today. The similarities between the ’60s and the present are startling. Unfortunately, Kerry didn’t give an interview to Butler, an old friend, for the movie. Except for a montage of photographs canvassing the senator’s life since the war protests, the film concentrates on the years from 1965 to 1971. And that’s too bad, because it would be nice to get to know the Kerry of 2004 just a bit better.

And while all lefties would benefit much if Kerry could gain back some of his youthful verve and passionate wit, it is good to know that at age 27 this was a man of undoubted bravery, leadership and character.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main, Royal Oak. Call 248-263-2111.

Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].