Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (documentary)

An historic number of political documentaries have appeared this year, most of them attacking the other side rather than promoting their own. But now here’s one that’s far less negative. “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry” is, pure and simple, an 87-minute campaign commercial for John Kerry.

It’s only OK as a movie, but it’s a fantastic political ad. Director George Butler follows this ingenious strategy:

1. Make us see the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, without stating them outright.
2. Make us want Iraq to end, too, the same as everyone wanted Vietnam to end.
3. Show us John Kerry fighting to end the Vietnam War.
4. Let us draw the parallel that he’ll fight to end the Iraq conflict, too, again without stating it outright.

John Kerry, it turns out, has been a public figure for longer than he’s been a politician. Butler acquired endless photos and home movies of him, first as a smart, idealistic Yale student, then as a dedicated and decorated soldier in Vietnam, then as an outspoken member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organization. In the climax, Kerry testifies before the senate committee on foreign relations, several minutes of which were featured on the network news broadcasts later that evening. The guy was born to be a star!

The testimonials from people who know him — though none from the man himself — become a little embarrassing, so transparent are they in their earnest, please-elect-our-friend mentality.

Where the film succeeds, though, is when it lets Kerry drop out of focus so it can educate us a bit on the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement that accompanied it. Butler’s last doc, “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition,” was a fascinating, thoroughly watchable history lesson, and “Going Upriver” has several segments that rival it. Long-haired anti-war protesters are a common image in films about the ’60s and early ’70s, but the more organized events — soldiers testifying about the atrocities being committed by the U.S., and so forth — are seldom depicted.

Of course, there’s an agenda here. “Going Upriver” shows how most Americans supported our sending troops to Vietnam at first, how we thought it wouldn’t take too long to get things in order, how we felt it was a noble cause we were fighting for, and how eventually the tide of public opinion changed and it became an extremely divisive issue, the sort of thing that can make or break a president (or install a new one altogether). Sound familiar? That’s the idea.

Consequently, very staunch Bush supporters may bristle at the film’s underlying politics — at the pro-Kerry material, obviously, but also at the subtle use of Vietnam to try to win support for the senator. Whether that’s any worse than using 9/11 to get people to vote for Bush is open for discussion, I suppose.

B- (1 hr., 27 min.; PG-13, some war images and a little profanity.)