This past Monday, I had the opportunity to attend a press screening of “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry,” George Butler’s new documentary, due to open October 1, about the Democratic presidential nominee’s time in Vietnam and his anti-war activities that followed.
Butler has been friends with Kerry for nearly 40 years, and the movie is in good measure hagiography, but it nonetheless paints a vivid portrait of a young man almost painfully attached to his ideals.
Kerry joined the service while still finishing up his undergraduate degree at Yale because he believed in the United States’ global mission and felt a duty to play his part. When his excursions on a swift boat showed him the inhumanity, horror and uselessness of that mission, he felt an equal duty to speak out. He became the most prominent veteran to stand up against the war, attracting the rapt attention of both the Nixon White House and Arkansas’ Sen. J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the harshest Capitol Hill critic of the Vietnam War.
It was Nixon’s operatives that first trained John O’Neil, the man at the center of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, to dedicate his life to destroying Kerry’s reputation.
For me, Kerry emerges from the movie a genuine activist hero. At the same time, given the number of scruffy protesters that surround him during his work as an anti-war activist and the serious charges he raised against American imperialistic arrogance, I don’t think this movie, if seen widely by the voting public, would help him in his current campaign.
But, I am convinced that if Kerry is unable to show the kind of integrity and resolve that I saw in him on film as a 27-year-old veteran, he will not defeat George W. Bush in November.
It may never be known how caution and ambition so thoroughly remade a young man’s courage. John Kerry can make the connection he needs to forge with Americans if he is able to summon something of the spirit that Butler put on celluloid. But time is short, and if he cannot do so, the long war will be lost and we will all be the poorer for it.
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