Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Film Walks Line Between Kerry Ad and War Documentary

NY Times
September 14, 2004

Film Walks Line Between Kerry Ad and War Documentary

TORONTO, Sept. 13 - The premiere on Tuesday night of a sympathetic documentary about Senator John Kerry stakes out new territory at the crossroads of politics and cinema: will audiences pay to see what amounts to a two-hour political tribute to a man spotlighted free on the news every night? Can a theatrically released feature film create last-minute momentum for a presidential candidate? Could the effort boomerang?

Those questions, similar to ones raised by Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," loom large as "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," directed by a longtime friend of Mr. Kerry, George Butler, makes its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, with the window for finding out the answers excruciatingly small. The film will open in 200 theaters on Oct. 1, less than five weeks before the election.

Acquired just six weeks ago by ThinkFilm, based in Canada, "Going Upriver" has shifted in content and story line almost daily. Three weeks ago, the film was far different, before the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth emerged to attack Senator Kerry's wartime record, the filmmakers said.

"George took a hatchet to the film," said Mark Urman, the head of distribution for ThinkFilm, and the focus was tightened exclusively to the Vietnam era. "The film was suddenly printed in capital letters. He took out anything that didn't address the point: who is this man, and why do we care about him?"

Using interviews and thousands of photographs taken by Mr. Butler since the late 1960's, the film is a careful, detailed portrait that features footage from Mr. Kerry's service on Swift boats in the Mekong Delta and rare images of him as he led several days of antiwar protest in Washington in 1971, culminating in the veterans' medal-throwing ceremony.

The film seems intended to settle questions of whether Mr. Kerry was indeed a war hero, which the Swift boat veterans' group has questioned, and to explain his shift from soldier to leader of the antiwar movement, which has been criticized by some of his detractors as unpatriotic. The film includes footage of Mr. Kerry briefly questioning a veteran at the Winter Soldiers event in 1971, when veterans gave anguished testimony about their experiences in Vietnam, testimony that may still inflame anti-Kerry veterans today.

But no one knows if audiences will be interested - and whether the film will help Mr. Kerry or simply inflame those already angry with his antiwar role.

"I'm trying to figure out what this film will do," said Mr. Butler, who first met the candidate in 1964, and told of becoming convinced early on that he would one day be president. "John Kerry fascinates me. I decided to do the movie about Vietnam and the peace movement because in many ways, it's the best story about John Kerry. But it's more than a film about John Kerry. It's a film about my generation."

At a research screening last week in a major swing state, Ohio, 80 percent of audience members said they would recommend that others go see the movie; the recruited audience included undecided voters, though movie research can be an unreliable predictor of success.

Depending on how well the film is received in Toronto, there are plans to raise several million dollars to distribute free copies of the film on DVD on the pro-Kerry "Vote for Change" rock concert tour led by Bruce Springsteen, and to get the film in the hands of voters in swing states.

The Kerry campaign was at pains to say it had nothing to do with the film, particularly with the release falling so close to the election and thus subject to federal election laws. (The $1.2 million budget for the film was provided by Kerry supporters.) The candidate did not give Mr. Butler an interview for the film and appears only in historical footage.

Monday, the campaign issued this statement about the film: "When John Kerry was a young man, he showed physical courage in voluntarily fighting the war in Vietnam. When he came home, he showed moral courage in fighting to end a war where over 40,000 of the 58,245 Americans had already died. Any movie that educates the country on the Vietnam War and the troubled times that surrounded it, is an important lesson."

Michael Meehan, a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign, said that no one at the campaign had seen the film "that I know of," and that there had been no strategizing over how to use the film to help the candidate.

Senator Kerry did provide Mr. Butler with his own Super-8 footage taken when he was a commander of a Swift boat, a dangerous coastal patrol that, as the film notes, at times had 90 percent casualty rates. When Mr. Kerry cites the pathos of seeing a young Viet Cong soldier left to die in his blue shirt beside a burning hut with no honors or medals, there is film to match the memory.

Mr. Butler also acquired Super-8 footage from another Swift boat commander, and relied on interviews with Mr. Kerry's fellow soldiers and historians like Neil Sheehan to reconstruct the Vietnam service.

There are no interviews with Mr. Kerry's critics. Instead, the film notes that the leading attacker of Senator Kerry's Vietnam record now, John O'Neill, was recruited by the Nixon White House to discredit antiwar veterans in 1971. Mr. O'Neill, in a recent interview in The New York Times unrelated to the new movie, said it was Mr. Kerry's antiwar stance that propelled him to act. He said that as a young Vietnam veteran just home from the war, he was so troubled by Mr. Kerry's Senate testimony against the war that he went on the talk show circuit to promote an opposing view.

Asked if he considers the film a hagiography, Mr. Butler smiled: "It's a word I'm familiar with. It means saintly," he said. "Everyone said I couldn't make a good film about a friend. But there's no narration in the film. It's one of the things I'm most proud of. That way you can show what John Kerry is like and not have to tell it."

The film is still a gamble on many levels. Unlike Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," the blockbuster anti-Bush documentary that ignited intense interest in political films this year, "Going Upriver" is not the comic rant of an angry polemicist, capitalizing on public anger over the war in Iraq. It is a close look at one man's experience during a war 30 years ago, not the sort of film that creates blockbuster interest.

And in creating such a positive portrait of a 27-year-old John Kerry, it seems fair to ask whether the current candidate may suffer by comparison. Mr. Butler said he was not worried. "People see this separation between John in Vietnam, and with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and now," he said. "He's surprisingly much the same person." .

Even less than 24 hours before the premiere, "Going Upriver" is not quite finished. The print being shown at the festival is an incomplete digital version that will be transferred to 35-millimeter film for the national release in two weeks. The film's distributors concede they are in uncharted waters, and are trying to figure out as they go how to make the $1.2 million budget movie a success.

"This film is being made as history as being made," Mr. Urman said. "I've never been involved with something that is so now. It's film distribution as performance art, and it's very exciting. We're making it up as we go along."