There’s a widely accepted myth in the US that the military could have — and indeed would have — "won" the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s had antiwar activists at home done their patriotic duty of shutting up and "supporting the troops." Today, this "support the troops" non-starter has become a mantra of our currently "firm and resolved" U.S. President and his "war" against terrorism, as well as the prevailing theme of his 2004 re-election campaign. Those 1970s stooges of Richard Nixon, the so-called "Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace," have morphed into the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" a fringe group of pro-Bush Texan nutcases who have flooded the airwaves this year with claims that, among other things, John Kerry shot himself in Vietnam, and that even if he was shot by the Viet Cong, he also wasn’t shot enough to earn his many medals, making him in some way "unfit for command."
So welcome this forthright but entirely dispassionate documentary, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, by British-born filmmaker (and longtime friend of Kerry) George Butler, known for his distinguished career in photojournalism as much for his eclectic, cult-classic documentaries Pumping Iron and The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Exploration.
Butler’s film is a slow-moving photo album and time capsule which covers John Kerry’s 1968 tour in Vietnam as a Navy officer and his subsequent leadership in the Veterans Against the War in the early 1970s, a politically risky action which culminated in his now famous (and for some reason "controversial") 1972 Congressional testimony about U.S. military "atrocities" in Southeast Asia. From there Butler’s footage documents the subsequent popular groundswell of several thousand vets and "winter soldiers" against the Vietnam war and the right-wing media firestorms that Kerry’s brave eloquence set in motion, an anger to which he himself responded on televised debates. Watching this young, idealistic Kerry addressing rallies and protests in the early 1970s, as compared to his stammering and painfully dull presidential campaign speeches today, one can’t help wonder what’s become of his stirring rhetorical gifts.
At first glance, the opening montages threaten the kind of partisan propaganda that mars many of the current political documentaries in the U.S. See Kerry as a type-A child prodigy studying and climbing tall trees. Watch Kerry as a gifted young teen skier working the slalom. Admire Kerry as the dapper, civic-minded Yale overachiever. Fortunately, though the focus quickly shifts to the politics of the era, namely President Johnson at a 1965 political rally enthusiastically promoting the nascent American invasion of South Vietnam. Save the authenticity of his Texan drawl, LBJ sounds awfully like George W., circa 2003, promising his believers that "we will use" overwhelming force to save an oppressed people.
In this way, Going Upriver parallels both America’s experience with Vietnam while subtly drawing parallels with the ongoing Iraq debacle. Visceral political and military catastrophes unfold in the film with as much naked sincerity as do the tormented voice-overs of the veterans and journalists who lived through the era alongside John Kerry. Their soulful voices are here, as is the era’s soulful music. Rather than merely adding a sheen of slick professionalism to an underground documentary, the folk and rock soundtrack (Bob Dylan, CSNY, John Lennon) reinforces that period’s sense of longing and desperation and gives the film’s narrative a haunting credibility.
But it hardly needs to be validated: there’s plenty of footage of young Lieutenant Kerry walking along Vietnamese riverbanks beside bewildered children and Kerry leading his crew of five upriver from within the hull of their vulnerable Navy boat. And the film’s most exceptional quality is how gently it handles and then gradually paces all this rare war footage.
Butler’s documentary is rich with scenes of unflinching cinema that generations of Hollywood film-makers have long striven to recreate. The war’s reality is inescapable and almost poetic. We have a bird’s-eye, panorama of sinewy brown Vietnamese rivers lined with U.S. gunboats. We’re jolted by aerial footage of bombs falling and then silently flowering into fireballs over deep-green Vietnamese jungles. We’re dryly told that in some cases 90% of the Swift boat soldiers were killed during their missions and that 3 million Vietnamese died during the war, half of them civilians.
Most dramatically, we’re disquieted by footage, apparently shot from the stern of a Swift boat under enemy fire, which provides a visual soundtrack to the narrative of Jim Rassmann, a soldier under Kerry’s command, who fell overboard after a mine explosion and who hid himself underwater while enemy gunfire rained into the Mekong River. Already shot himself, Kerry risked his own life to pull Rassmann out of the river.
Interspersed with these stories are old and new interviews about the American military’s desperate scorched earth approach toward the Vietnamese people, particularly General Westmoreland’s free-fire zones and the "harassment-interdiction" policies—war-crime tactics in which U.S. soldiers were ordered to fire at anyone and anything along the riverbanks, apparently in a grotesque attempt to use high body counts — civilian and otherwise — as evidence that a losing campaign was winning. The film also documents gatherings in Detroit in the early 1970s during which recently returned and disillusioned vets assembled to form their own truth and reconciliation committees, discussing what they’d seen, and more disturbing, what many had done. Their grainy black and white testimonials are prescient enough to remind one of Abu Ghraib and make even pro-Bush hawks wonder what might become of the civilians in Fallujah and Samarra.
But the interviews and the sparse voice-overs of Going Upriver never drift into partisan hyperbole, and the film will have a shelf life far beyond 2004. Like its subject, it is by turns stoic, reflective, awkward, well-mannered and righteously appalled. Most compelling are the nuanced reflections of former U.S. Senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam vet and triple amputee who was run out of his Georgia Senate seat in 2002 by a Republican Party machine that produced campaign commercials suggesting he was an ally of Saddam Hussein’s and Osama bin Laden’s. Cleland, like many other vets who speak here, attest not only to Kerry’s postwar bravery but to the widespread and still-wounded pride felt by thousands of those vets who never quite figured out what they were doing there all those years ago.
In the end, the film reminds us that failure to admit failure breeds brutal deceptions on the part of those who have failed. Butler’s documentary not only soberly rebukes the right-wing assaults on Kerry’s military service, but through its patient narrative of a generation’s resistance, it challenges the U.S. public to embrace one era’s gutsy truth-teller over our own epoch’s spineless failure.