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'Upriver': Kerry In Command

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2004; Page WE34

"GOING UPRIVER: The Long War of John Kerry" shows us something we just don't see very much: a presidential candidate performing military service.

Oh, it's been known to happen. Remember George Washington crossing the Delaware? But seriously, George Butler's documentary may not sway any political opinions one way or the other, but it does provide ample evidence that Kerry did more than show up for battle. Let's not turn Kerry into Sgt. Rock here, but we also learn Kerry, as a Swift boat commander, wasn't ducking from danger. He was seeking it.


John Kerry, right, and friend David Thorne during a Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest on the Mall in 1971. (George Butler -- Thinkfilm)

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"You're looking for trouble," says interviewee and historian Neil Sheehan, referring to the "free fire zones" that were the riverboat's domain. These Navy vessels sought contraband and the enemy, shooting at anyone and anything that didn't say "good guys" to them. But it also meant extreme vulnerability. It meant crossfire. It meant high casualties. It meant dead civilians. It was not pretty.

The movie does something extremely significant: It puts together a composite, fuller picture of Kerry than the fragmentary sketches and less-flattering renderings offered by a jittery media (afraid to seem favorable to the Democrats) and Kerry's extremely vocal opponents, including Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

We see, in detail, how Kerry and hundreds of comrades established Vietnam Veterans Against the War, marched on Washington and camped in front of Congress. And in one of the most moving passages, the film shows the Dewey Canyon demonstration in April 1971, when Kerry and his fellow veterans ceremoniously throw away medals and ribbons they had earned in wartime. This is touching for the real pain in those veterans' faces, tossing away things so dear to them as military men but so politically poisonous to them at that moment. It's a disquieting experience, fraught with tragedy and tension.

We also see the 29-year-old Kerry testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And there, again, is his famous rhetorical question: "How do you ask a man to be the last one to die in Vietnam?"

There's no doubt about this movie's political agenda -- Butler and Kerry are lifelong friends. It wants us to see Kerry as a gallant, honorable and thoughtful man, who fought for his country and saved people's lives. But for Kerry, says the grateful survivor of a Kerry rescue under fire, "I would not have all these extra days. I'd be on a wall somewhere."

Kerry, the movie also argues, earned the right to criticize the war he had fought. And in this evolution, he became a leader. It's a pro-Kerry rally of a movie, to be sure. But it's one view of Kerry that seems to have been lost in the present acrimonious shuffle. It's quite possible Butler could bring Kerry the fortune he so desperately needs. After all, Butler made a 1977 film called "Pumping Iron" about an eccentric Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Back then, Butler has said in interviews, he predicted Schwarzenegger would become governor of California. And no one listened.

GOING UPRIVER: THE LONG WAR OF JOHN KERRY (PG-13, 92 minutes) -- Contains footage of wartime atrocities. Area theaters.


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