A fascinating aspect of the 2004 presidential election is the prevalence of political filmmaking. Most are obvious attack vehicles, their targets ranging from George W. Bush and his war on Iraq (Fahrenheit 9/11, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War), Fox News (Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism), or John Kerry (Stolen Honor). Against these George Butler’s Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry provides a happy contrast.
Butler is a respected documentarian (best known for Pumping Iron), and his skills shine in his latest piece. He has long been Kerry’s friend, which one might use to automatically discredit the film, but he hasn’t created a glowing tribute. Going Upriver combines original Vietnam-era footage with interviews from Kerry family and friends, historians, and government officials. Kerry’s opponent is never mentioned and neither are the divisive issues currently troubling the American people. What Butler does, without ever directly addressing them, is respond to the attacks of “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” who have received a good deal of media coverage for their propaganda maligning Kerry’s Vietnam record.
At Yale, Kerry was approached by a classmate’s father, William Bundy, a key figure in the government’s intervention policy in Vietnam. Bundy appealed to Kerry to serve as a leader there, and Kerry accepted, volunteering to serve on a swift boat. Butler doesn’t shy away from clarifying that when Kerry volunteered, swift boats were essentially acting as a coast guard. During Kerry’s service, though, the boats were reassigned to areas that were substantially more dangerous (a veteran claims that the casualty rate for swift boats was 90 percent).
Against the backdrop of gruesome war-time footage, Jim Rassmann, the man Kerry rescued while wounded and under enemy attack, tells his story. The Swift Boat Veterans group has said Kerry’s boat was not under fire when he pulled Rassmann from the water; Rassmann says fire was coming from both banks. Because Butler doesn’t include the counterarguments, he doesn’t allow his film to become a series of squabbles, instead allowing Rassmann to tell the tale of his rescue rather than turning it over to a bystander.
Additionally, vivid descriptions of Kerry’s bravery and fast-paced decision-making are given by fellow veterans who served on the same swift boat as Kerry, the most memorable being what they call “Silver Star Day,” in reference to the citation for gallantry that Kerry received for running down and killing an enemy soldier who was preparing to fire a B40 rocket at his boat.
Max Cleland, a former Senator (D-GA) and a Vietnam veteran who lost both legs and an arm there, describes Vietnam as place of beauty and terror, which aptly describes the footage of the first half of the film. Combining this with Kerry’s actions as viewed through the eyes of people who served with him works to establish Kerry as a man who served his country bravely and ably.
Kerry’s service, however, has never been effectively challenged; his post-war behavior fuels the attacks of the Swift Boat Veterans. Butler’s film is a much-needed examination of Kerry’s participation in the anti-war movement, which had been going on for five years when Kerry returned to the United States. Historians give the movement context, and veterans describe the difficulties of both coping with their experience of war and returning to a country that seemed not to want them and that refused to hear what they had to say.
Kerry eventually became a spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), culminating in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Before showing excerpts from that testimony, though, Butler smartly includes footage of an event that many will have only heard about in passing: the Winter Soldier Hearings, which occurred at a Howard Johnson’s in Detroit. The Swift Boat Veterans have attacked Kerry for his testimony because he said that U.S. soldiers were committing atrocities in Vietnam; the group has called Kerry “unfit for command” because of his statements, which they claim dishonor all Vietnam veterans. Again, Butler never mentions the attack group; he simply undermines its arguments by putting Kerry’s words into context. At the Winter Soldier Hearings, soldiers describe the villainous acts they had seen and, in some instances, committed. The scenes are moving and disturbing. And they are an ideal lead-in to Kerry’s testimony, the transcript of which is available here.
That testimony came at a tumultuous time in American history, during which Kerry proved himself a leader. VVAW members speak of Kerry moving throughout the group, tempering anger at the government these men felt was betraying them — not just by having sent them to a war they felt had been a mistake from the beginning, but by attempting to silence their dissent.
Butler includes the most effective parts of Kerry’s testimony, culminating in Senator J. William Fulbright’s assessment of Kerry: “I can’t imagine [VVAW] having selected a better representative or spokesman.” During that testimony Kerry mentioned the atrocities he had heard discussed in Detroit, but by having shown footage of the soldiers who had committed or seen these acts themselves, Butler defuses the Swift Boat Veterans’ charge of betrayal without having ever brought it up.
Another issue addressed by the film is Kerry’s medals, which the media and Republican attack groups have bandied about: did he throw his medals or his ribbons? Butler doesn’t waste his film on that argument, instead presenting veterans who tossed their medals and/or ribbons away and aren’t at all ashamed for having done so. Butler uses emotionally charged footage of the actual event. The soldiers threw their medals in dedication to friends they had lost, wounds they had taken, and all the frustrations they felt. They are shown shouting and crying, and one can’t help but see that this was more than political; it was personal.
Here, ribbons versus medals doesn’t matter. Most of us will never understand how much pain those veterans were experiencing as they tossed away symbols that were intended as honorable but which they saw as despicable. One veteran who tossed his medals says that they wanted to rid themselves of symbols of a bogus war and that doing so was exceptionally difficult because they were experiencing all of this emotional pain for something they saw as being completely illegitimate. When Kerry tossed his medals (or ribbons), he said he was doing so to help his country wake up — to judge him for that is to lack all understanding of patriotism.
By the time the credits roll, the audience is left with much to ponder. For example, John O’Neill, one of the men heading Swift Boat Veterans, was originally pulled out of the woodwork by the Nixon administration to counter Kerry. Now during George W. Bush’s campaign for re-election, O’Neill is once again of use to the Republican Party. And once again, during a time of war. Additionally, the footage, the historical accounts, the inhumane actions of American soldiers — all of these things recall the horrors of a war. Unfortunately, it’s not the Vietnam War. Going Upriver shows that Kerry is a deeply patriotic man who understands complexity. Nixon kept U.S. forces in Vietnam as long as he did so that the United States wouldn’t have to admit it had made a mistake. Watching Kerry testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one wonders how we could once again be in a place so very similar.
Ryan Lindsey previously wrote political commentary and the occasional movie review for Pajiba.
Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry / Ryan Lindsey
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()