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With: Douglas Brinkley, Joe Klein, Thomas Oliphant
Written by: Joseph Dorman, based on the book by Douglas Brinkley
Directed by: George Butler
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 92
Date: 09/14/2004

Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Fit for Command

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Earlier this year the satirical newspaper The Onion published aheadline that read something like: "Kerry Chooses Own Former Self asRunning Mate." It's a pretty funny joke, but not such a crazy idea.

As seen in the new documentary Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, our current Democratic Presidential nominee was once a true hero, an intelligent, fearless leader of men who could relate to both shaggy, disgruntled Vietnam War veterans and to the conservative, out-of-touch politicos on Capitol Hill.

This 90-minute film doesn't bother much with Kerry's childhood or his life as a Senator or his presidential run. It centers itself around a roughly ten-year period in which Kerry volunteered for service in Vietnam, experienced a rude awakening as to the purpose and intention of the war, then turned around and helped end it when he got home.

The Republicans call this "flip-flopping," and try to convince the American people that it's a weakness. But as shown in "Going Upriver," Kerry's behavior is actually reasonable, responsible and refreshingly human.

Directed by George Butler (Pumping Iron, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition), the film has no shortage of old photographs and film footage of Kerry, both as a young civilian, as a solider in Vietnam and especially in the aftermath, when his political star began to rise.

Composer Philip Glass, who scored Errol Morris' recent masterwork The Fog of War, provides a similar score here, giving the film an almost constant emotional, dramatic through-line.

However, Going Upriver doesn't interview Kerry, nor does it interview anyone involved with the current campaign. It sticks to people who served with him and to writers and commentators (such as the Boston Globe's Thomas Oliphant) who were there.

Honestly, Kerry couldn't have added a whole lot to the praise and adoration his friends lavish on him in the interviews. We hear from the men whose lives Kerry saved on the now-infamous Swift Boat, as well as the men who helped him during a few tense weeks in Washington in the early 1970s as veterans camped on the lawn and threw their medals away.

But the movie has its finest moment as we witness the 27 year-old Kerry going alone before a Senate Committee, in front of an enormous crowd of people and on national television, giving an eloquent, stirring and impassioned speech about the injustice of the war.

Even President Nixon was moved. In one of his legendary tapes he compares Kerry to Kennedy, and then sets out to smear Kerry's good name. Fortunately, Kerry wiped the floor with his detractors and came out shining.

Nevertheless, Going Upriver feels a little slight to me. I would have preferred a longer film that made more of an attempt to connect the 1970s Kerry with the 2000s Kerry. It would be nice if today's Kerry could show a little of the fire that this younger Kerry had. But simply seeing this film will allow viewers (and voters) to step up and make a connection between the two.

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