George Butler is responsible for the governor of California: His 1977 documentary, Pumping Iron, made the obscure Arnold Schwarzenegger a big pop star. Will his new biopic, Going Upriver (opens Fri., Oct. 1, at Metro), make John Kerry president? Not likely, but it's one of the very best of the Democrat-friendly docs stampeding in the wake of Fahrenheit 9/11. And the young Vietnam vet that the film celebrates has star power to dwarf Arnold's. After you witness Kerry's epochal 1971 antiwar testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, you'll concur with the taped comments of his evil admirers and would-be character assassins, Richard Nixon and H.R. Haldeman: "A Kennedy-type guy! He looks like a Kennedy, and he talks exactly like a Kennedy."
The film is all about Vietnam and how it made a rather wooden preppie into a man of presidential timber. With a remarkable profusion of actual war footage, we see Kerry as a young Swift boat warrior, meet the men he served with and saved, and find out the terrifying risks he took for his nation while Bush was taking a pass and a boozy piss. Swift boats were incredibly loud; their job was to roar up the Mekong River and give the Viet Cong along the banks an easy target for rocket-propelled grenades. Kerry actually jumped off the boat, hopping mad about getting shot at, and killed a VC who had his boat in his RPG sights. "To this day, I will never understand why he did not pull the trigger," Kerry says. (All footage and audio of Kerry is from decades ago.) The accounts of Kerry's heroism make Swift Boat Veterans for Truth author John O'Neill look like the father of lies.
Mixing historic news footage, articulate talking heads, and really good period music, Butler dramatizes in detail the ribbon-and-medal-flinging protest Kerry spearheaded with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. You see him in action, the wiser head prevailing among wilder-haired probable potheads. His speeches are stunningly good. On The Dick Cavett Show, he debates a 98-pound weakling of a right-wing Vietnam veteran and stomps him but good. And the right-winger is John O'Neill! Oddly, Butler doesn't indicate O'Neill as Kerry's future nemesis, but he shows his ugly origin—O'Neill was recruited by Chuck Colson, Nixon's dirty-trickster in chief.
Despite inspiring passages, Going Upriver is downbeat. Though current events aren't mentioned, it's thunderously clear that Vietnam's tragedy is repeated as Iraq farce: the idiotically unplanned war strategy, the rape and murder of civilians to win hearts and minds, the cold contempt for the GI cannon-fodder class, the equation of candor with treason. Here's the worst: Kerry has lost the magic he had at 27, and America's true enemies—the liars of the right—are poised to win.