The Vietnam experience of John Kerry, in terms of both his service there and his leadership role in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War after returning home, is the subject of George Butler’s intense and involving documentary. Unlike most other recent examples of political non-fiction films, on both the left and the right, “Going Upriver” isn’t loudly propagandistic; it’s an admiring portrait, to be sure, but at the same time it retains at least a modicum of objectivity. And it invites serious consideration of whether Kerry’s actions as a young man don’t evince a character that makes the present presidential election a true choice, between an incumbent who looks at matters from a simple, unequivocal perspective and a challenger whose most powerful trait may be an inclination to appreciate complexity and wrestle with moral ambiguity. That certainly makes for a meaningful contest, and if this picture helps to frame it in that way, it will have done a useful public service.
The film is a professional job–Butler was the man responsible for the “Pumping Iron” films from 1977 and 1985, among others (including the recent fine piece “The Endurance,” on Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition)–and it’s not a direct response to the recent anti-Kerry “Swift Boat” ads. Neither is it a full-scale biography, though it does touch briefly upon Kerry’s youth and his college years (it says little, for instance, about his schooling abroad, nor on his stint as a prosecutor before entering politics). Rather “Going Upriver” is an effort to understand both the dichotomy and the connection between the young lieutenant’s tour of duty in Vietnam and his role in the anti-war movement after his return to the States, concentrating on the demonstrations he was instrumental in organizing; his television debates with, among others, John O’Neill, the young man who has been instrumental in the Swift Boat campaign; and the eloquent appearance before Senator Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee that earned him national recognition. Contrary to what one might expect, less attention is paid to his combat exploits–although mention is made of his medals and some of his comrades make brief remarks–and more to his role in anti-war activities afterward. Since those remain controversial, it’s hardly likely that if the film were simply a campaign contribution it would have been framed in the way it is.
Unlike so many of the political documentaries released nowadays, “Going Upriver” isn’t basically a polemic; it’s a serious, often very moving portrait of the effect the Vietnam War had on the nation and particularly those who served in it, with John Kerry presented in effect as a case study. For those who lived through the sixties and seventies, it will be especially poignant, but younger viewers should find it revealing and affecting as well.