With the presidential election now beyond its first debate, and four weeks of campaigning left, here's a little unsolicited advice to the Kerry camp (and you Bush guys might want to listen up, too): Here's what you do. What does it cost to mass produce a DVD - about 10 cents?
Well, mass-produce and deliver a DVD of Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, the moving and eloquent new documentary that opens today in Toledo and nationwide, to every undecided voter with a mailbox. Or hand out the DVDs on street corners. It'll be way more effective than phone calls or those yard signs.
Going Upriver is pro-Kerry, to be sure; at times so slavishly reverential that if George W. Bush saw it, he'd vote for Kerry. It doesn't have a negative peep to say about the guy (which does it no favors). And there are lots of obvious adoration and questionable filmmaking choices for a Kerry opponent to seize on.
Although as much of a clear-eyed account of the ambiguity of war as it is about Kerry, it's hard not to find it bracing, regardless of who you vote for.
And as for the voter stuck in the middle or simply undecided, it'll be a perverse kind of campaign film: one that gives you the fascinating opportunity to compare the younger John Kerry with the candidate he is today.
My guess is, that last part - not really intended.
As a slice of history though, Going Upriver is an involving account of a young man who joined the military for idealistic purposes and lives through experiences and meets people who force him to challenge his ideals. Think an episode of American Experience meets a bit of Born on the Fourth of July. It's not a life story and it never makes an appeal to voters or mentions rival candidates. Kerry himself isn't even interviewed (which is probably smart, it'd look too self-serving), and he doesn't come off like Sgt. Rock, the DC Comics war hero. It starts with a brief childhood recap (Kerry looked 50 years old even in high school) and some Yale footage.
Then we're off to Vietnam, and even if you're sick of hearing about Kerry and Vietnam, here we get what we've only seen in visual fragments and heard in sound bites: a full, evocative picture of that Swift boat service.
The film makes an essential point through interviews and a pile of archival footage that the habitat of the Swift boat veteran was the habitat of the sitting duck. You're a target, there to lure the enemy out of the jungles. "You are out looking for some trouble," explains historian Neil Sheehan.
It's not a flashy film, and the second half is positively mournful. We see, through reams of documenting footage, how Kerry and hundreds of veterans establish Vietnam Veterans Against the War. There's real pain as we watch, from 1971, veterans lob away their medals and ribbons in protest. It's an unnerving bit of political theater. And it climaxes with the 27-year-old Kerry testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, apparently speaking off the top of his head, but intelligently and with a passion that's surprising.
At the moment, this can't avoid playing like a campaign film; Going Upriver, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, was directed and financed by the very capable George Butler, who also happens to be a longtime buddy of Kerry's (which also does the film no favors).
The film's agenda, despite Butler's disingenuous insistence that the timing is pure coincidence, seems dubious. I suppose it is. But after Nov. 2, it goes back to being an elegiac history lesson, and what we once called advocacy filmmaking. Some documentaries argue a cause - that's their intent. This doesn't make them informercials or insignificant.
In 1977, Butler made a body-building documentary called Pumping Iron. His camera gravitated to a young Austrian named Arnold Schwarzenegger. The film became a calling card for a natural charisma that translated into, of course, a movie mega-stardom and eventually the governorship of California. Today, Pumping Iron plays kind of like an informercial, too. Back then, it was the birth of Sgt. Rock.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org