By the time you read this, John Kerry may have cleaned Dubya's clock in their first debate. But Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry shows that the candidate comes off best when he lets someone else speak for him even if that someone is his 27-year-old self.
As slick and persuasive as a closing-night convention film, this documentary about Kerry's Vietnam service and antiwar activism keeps its protagonist offstage until the most crucial moments. Instead of a modern-day Kerry droning on about the defining challenge of his generation, we hear a panoply of his war buddies and other admirers recalling that conflict in harrowingly personal terms and extolling the heroism they say Kerry showed under fire. (Dissenting recollections go unheard, the film taking its cues from Douglas Brinkley's published bio Tour of Duty and not any Regnery hatchet job.) The brutal strains of Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" foster an atmosphere of anxiety as we watch a swift boat traveling up the 5,000 miles of river Kerry and his ilk were made to navigate. They were, we learn, human guinea pigs in a rash experiment to inflate the enemy body count at any cost.
Filmmaker George Butler's meticulous collage of home movies, newsreel clips and still photography deposits us in the thick of that era with startling immediacy and a commitment to documentation that leaves no touchstone unturned. (Even Walter Cronkite gets an on-screen ID.) The narrative that ensues manages to advance Kerry's legend while humanizing him to an uncommon degree. Observes Yale classmate David Thorne, "He still owes me money."
As the storyline evolves from Kerry's military duty to his leadership role with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the man himself gradually moves center stage, emerging as a literate mouthpiece capable of stirring the heart with off-the-cuff testimony on The Dick Cavett Show and in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" he famously inquires, scaling a plane of righteous indignation he too seldom reaches these days.
Parallels to the current Iraq imbroglio are obvious, but the déjà vu doesn't end there. Note this anti-Kerry fatwa that was allegedly circulated within the Nixon White House: "Destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader." A threat's a threat, then as now.