If the big brains behind the Democratic presidential campaign are still in search of a strategy, they might want to consider getting every undecided voter in America to see Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. This potent and eye-opening documentary, assembled by director George Butler (Pumping Iron) from a vast array of archival footage, shows us what the media has presented only in fragmentary glimpses: a compelling, blow-by-blow account of John Kerry’s service in Vietnam – and, more than that, the full revealing chronicle of how he ultimately came together with hundreds of his comrades to form Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Did Kerry face enemy fire when he pulled Jim Rassmann out of the water? Going Upriver addresses the controversy over that fateful moment by underscoring, as Butler documents, that Kerry and his crew faced the shredding of enemy gunfire every single day. That was the entire suicide-squad nature of the Swift boat mission: They were deployed as targets, the men on board as human bait, all meant to lure the Vietcong out from the safety of their jungles. (What a cushy assignment!) In the film’s powerful second half, the veterans of Vietnam – honorable, stricken, yet unbroken men – gather tentatively in 1971, almost as a kind of postwar recovery group, and find themselves politicized, day by day.
As they arrive in Washington, setting up camp on the Mall, the shaggy-haired, soft-spoken Kerry emerges only gradually as their leader. The point of view of the veterans is expressed in the sentiment ”Bring our brothers home,” and part of what makes Going Upriver so moving is the tremulous sight of how close these protesters felt to all the soldiers still at war. Their ritual tossing away of ribbons and medals becomes a moment of overwhelming American tragedy and pride. As for Kerry’s congressional testimony, seen in far more sizable excerpts than we’ve been privy to, it reveals a conviction that is memorable in its plainspoken eloquence. Anyone who sees Going Upriver will find it hard to argue that what happened close to 35 years ago no longer matters in America today.