Movie Review: Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry

By Monica Sullivan
Movie Magazine International
Released on Friday, October 1, the day after the first Presidential debate of 2004, “Going Upriver: The Long War Of John Kerry,” will definitely provoke a great many private debates among the viewers who watch George Butler's must-see documentary. To be sure, the first brief part of the film is not dissimilar from the campaign film that ran in July at the Democratic convention: there are, after all, a finite number of childhood home movies from which to choose. Once John Kerry grows up, though, the interest level soars from mild to compelling.

No young men from the early 1960's through 1975 were unaffected by Viet Nam. They were either bitterly opposed to the U.S. military presence there or they felt a moral obligation to enlist and support the decisions of the American government. Even grade school children, too young to do either, were thoroughly familiarized with the concept of the domino theory, folksily explained by President Johnson in the film. Young John Kerry went to Viet Nam, returned a decorated War hero and, through his experiences, became bitterly opposed to the U.S. military presence there. As an executive committee member and spokesman for the Viet Nam Veterans Against The War, Kerry helped to organize a march of 1100 veterans to Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, April 19, 1971. An advance permit for the march had been applied for and denied. Among the group were mothers whose sons had died in battle. Their entrance to Arlington was also denied. A mass march across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge to the Capitol Mall followed and a resolution was presented to Congressional members with a sixteen-point plan to end the war. The following day, Tuesday, April 20, the veterans were permitted to enter Arlington to lay wreaths on graves. On Wednesday, Senator Edward Kennedy joined the veterans on the mall and on Thursday, John Kerry was invited to speak before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His entire five-minute testimony was broadcast to the nation, a television rarity then and now. There was a candlelight march around the White House that night and a tree-planting ceremony on Friday, April 23rd. That was also the day that the veterans tossed their medals on the Capitol steps, some with bitter grief, some with defiant grief, John Kerry with pure and undiluted grief.

It is clear from the retrospective interviews in Butler's film that none made the decision to discard their decorations for bravery as a frivolous gesture. One of the most articulate of the veterans is Rusty Sachs, a 1971 ringer for the wild-haired high school kid in “Room 222.” It's hard to imagine such a free spirit serving in 725 combat missions in Viet Nam, but as we move forward in time to hear the Executive Director of the National Association of Flight Instructors, we see that the Rusty Sachs of 2004 is both the battle-worn veteran and the charismatic activist. We also see and hear that the veteran's five-day protest in 1971 was riddled with frantic behind-the-scenes efforts to dismantle the gathering and discredit its participants. As President Nixon always did when faced with perceived threats, he feigned absorption in Presidential duties that had nothing to do with the march, but in fact, he was obsessed by it-and by John Kerry. "He sounds like a Kennedy!" he yelled at his White House aides. Even in 1971, John O'Neill (yes, the same John O'Neill behind the anti-Kerry ads of 2004) was recruited by the White House to challenge Kerry's heroic war record, and even appeared on The Dick Cavett Show to run down Kerry's patriotism. Where Kerry appears cool, calm and at peace with his own activism, O'Neill seems to be closeted, bristling and perpetually on the boil. If statesmen are known by their enemies as well as their friends, the contrast between Kerry and O'Neill is incredibly revealing. “Going Up River: The Long War Of John Kerry” is accompanied by authentic period music that is off-the-beaten track, so the impact is both profound and deeply moving. The pervasive sadness of George Butler's film shows how hard 1971 was to live through and what an uphill struggle it was for Americans to change their perceptions of the war. A sad-eyed, soft-spoken young man named John Kerry was an integral part of that change. If we still don't know who he is and what he stands for, even after his subsequent 33 years of service to his country, we aren't paying attention.
More Information:
Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
USA - 2004