- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

Evidently, it wasn’t enough for the 2004 documentary calendar to be overstocked with Bush-bashing projects. Just days short of the video release of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” filmmaker George Butler thoughtfully changes the subject from the shortcomings of the president to the virtues of Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, in his fawning “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry.”

In interviews, although not the movie itself, Mr. Butler readily acknowledges that he has been a friend and confidante of his subject for the last 40 years. Best known for his 1977 bodybuilding documentary “Pumping Iron,” Mr. Butler has already contributed to the year’s campaign books with a photographic “portrait” of the Democratic Party nominee. I gather that photos from the Butler collection have been used during the end credits, which telescope the past 33 years of Mr. Kerry’s public life into a sequence of snapshot updates.

This farewell gesture underlines some abiding problems for outsiders and nonbelievers. “Going Upriver,” which also acknowledges Douglas Brinkley’s laudatory book “Tour of Duty” as a principal source, dwells on only two chapters of the Kerry saga: abbreviated but decorated service as a Swift Boat commander during the Vietnam War, early in 1969, and emergence as a rather patrician organizer and spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War in spring 1971.

According to the movie’s interview subjects, all friends or admirers of the senator, these are the two experiences that define Mr. Kerry. Curiosity about any others would appear to be idle or impertinent. Among Kerry partisans, it’s a given that his war record and antiwar record were uniquely courageous and exemplary. “Going Upriver” is a rubber stamp embedded within a biographical digest.

Mr. Butler’s reluctance to give dissenting views more than a cursory nod may unintentionally weaken his movie as a morale booster. He perfects a rallying monotone and minimizes the recurrent controversies that stem from Mr. Kerry’s VVAW interlude. They have an ornery way of resurfacing when stakes are high, as they are this election season.

John O’Neill, who has re-emerged as a Kerry nemesis with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, is singled out for contempt. Mr. Butler incorporates excerpts from the Dick Cavett show in which Mr. O’Neill, looking very boyish, was invited to debate Mr. Kerry and a VVAW firebrand of the period, Bobby Muller, destined to become a prototype for the Jon Voight character in Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home.” In each case, the young O’Neill seems to be tongue-tied, while Mr. Kerry and Mr. Muller get to hog the showcase.

In reality, Mr. O’Neill did get his point of view across in portions of the Cavett appearances ignored by “Going Upriver.” The most ga-ga testimonials in “Going Upriver” spring from Douglas Brinkley, looking as wide-eyed and credulous as a child at Christmas, and Tom Oliphant, who believes that Mr. Kerry’s calming influence on the disillusioned vets of 1971 showed exceptional leadership.

During the movie it’s easier to be impressed by such pro-Kerry vets as Bobby Muller and former senators Max Cleland and Bob Kerrey, whose war memories are more distinctive and evocative. Despite his loyalties, George Butler tends to beg the nagging question, “Why John Kerry?” Among all the eligible, decorated Vietnam combat veterans, how did this singular opportunist rise to the top of a national election ticket? I think we’re looking at an enduring baffler.


TITLE: “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by George Butler. Written by Joseph Dorman, based on the book “Tour of Duty” by Douglas Brinkley. Cinematography by Sandi Sissel. Music by Philip Glass.

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes


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