Monday, September 13, 2004

Movie highlights Kerry's 2 Vietnam roles

The Boston Globe
Movie highlights Kerry's 2 Vietnam roles
New film may spur backlash

By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff | September 13, 2004

NEW YORK -- It is an image from the Vietnam era that most Americans have never seen: a somber John Forbes Kerry, then 27, speaking with a fellow veteran in 1971 about the violence of warfare that both men had participated in.

"Is there something that you really, kind of want to say in terms of crimes and why they happened?" Kerry gently asks the man, in a quiet moment in a Detroit banquet hall where veterans had come to speak about their own acts of brutality against Vietnamese noncombatants. "What sort of makes you -- what brings you here, what makes you say, 'I want to testify'?"

"I'd almost need a book to answer that now," the man replies wearily. "You're supposed to feel sorry for Americans, but you weren't supposed to feel sorry for the enemy."

An invitation-only audience recently watched this scene during a screening here of a new documentary about Kerry and Vietnam, "Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry," which premieres tomorrow at the Toronto Film Festival. In the documentary, the Democratic presidential nominee came across as "gripping" and "impressive," viewers said in a discussion afterward.

Yet the film, which is set to open in the United States on Oct. 1, arrives at a time when many voters are skeptical of the hagiography that envelops Kerry's wartime experiences in "Going Upriver," an expression for going into battle. The movie was conceived long before a group of veterans began attacking Kerry's combat record and antiwar activism last month, but several moments in it -- particularly Kerry's remark about soldiers' "crimes," and scenes of him marching for peace and throwing away his combat ribbons at a Washington protest -- are bound to whip up these critics anew during the crucial final weeks of the 2004 campaign. Other viewers, like the Greenwich Village audience screening the film last week, will be just as impressed by the former swift boat commander's poise in the glowingly positive 92-minute picture.

The movie, which drew no funding from the campaign, was financed by a range of investors across the country, many of whom are friends of Kerry or are strongly supporting his presidential bid.

The possibility that "Going Upriver" could be exploited to hurt Kerry's candidacy was not lost on one of the film's executive producers, Bill Samuels, who asked the New York audience for their reactions to Kerry's conversation with the veteran at the so-called "Winter Soldier hearings" 33 years ago.

"That [scene] could be just grabbed by someone as a stand-alone and that could be on the news -- John soliciting someone," Samuels explained. "I happen to like it. I'm just wondering if that piece could be used as a stand-alone by the Bush people. Maybe I'm overreacting."

One audience member answered, "The Bush people are going to do their thing. What can you do?"

The scene remained in the film.

Production for "Going Upriver," by George Butler, the documentary director and a longtime Kerry friend, was nearly complete last month when a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched a television commercial that questioned the official naval record of Kerry's Vietnam heroism and whether he deserved his combat medals. The swift boat group has also aired a commercial lashing Kerry for telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971 that some US soldiers had "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads," and committed other atrocities in Vietnam.

While the film includes about two minutes of clips from that Senate appearance, Kerry's testimony about atrocities is left out. Butler said, "You can't get everything in a movie."

"I did cover Winter Soldier, which almost no one else has done, that formed the basis for his atrocity testimony," Butler noted.

The film, in which the Kerry campaign has played no role, has a wealth of personal pictures and footage from the Democrat's youth and 20s.

Kerry campaign spokesman Michael Meehan said officials at the campaign have not seen the film, and he did not express concern about some of the potentially controversial footage. "Any movie that educates the country on the Vietnam war and the troubled times that surrounded it is an important lesson," Meehan said.

Occasionally Butler, as an artist, takes dramatic license to re-create scenes of warfare. The director meticulously researched these moments and views them as accurate. One is designed to show the February 1969 firefight when Kerry (who does not appear on camera in these scenes) ran his swift boat ashore and killed a Viet Cong, an action that earned him the Silver Star. Butler also added sound effects of gunfire -- one shot for every hole in a battered boat, for instance -- and other touches that may invite criticism from the swift boat group, among others, which has alleged that some of the battles did not unfold with the intensity that Kerry has described and naval records indicate.

The Vietnam footage, which Butler weaves with interviews with Kerry's crewmates, war historians, and others, includes some film that Kerry himself took as a Navy lieutenant, which has been criticized by some veterans as calculated self-glorification.

"What struck me from looking through [Kerry's Vietnam film] was how much combat footage there was, how many buildings were set on fire, how many buildings were shot at," Butler said. "If there were no Super-8 footage from John, we could have done nothing -- Vietnam would have been a zero."

The bulk of the film is devoted to Kerry's growing anger at the war, and to his role in the protest movement after coming home: as an observer and occasional participant at the Winter Soldier hearings; as an emerging leader of the four-day antiwar demonstration in Washington in April 1971, which included his Senate testimony; and as the patrician-sounding spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, drawing the ire of President Nixon.

Tape recordings in the film of Nixon and his aides worrying about the well-groomed Kerry help document how the roots of Kerry's political power -- and for much of this year, his rationale to be president -- lay in his actions during the Vietnam era. It was scenes from the 1971 demonstration of Kerry marching through Washington, championing the veterans' cause to the media and to the Senate, and lobbing away his combat ribbons at the foot of the Capitol, that captured him as a leader for the Greenwich Village audience.

Last spring, when controversy first broke out over Kerry's wartime activities, it stemmed from some veterans arguing that he actually threw his medals away. In television interviews around the time of the protest, Kerry indicated as much. But he insisted last spring that he used the words "medals" and "ribbons" interchangeably over the years; Butler, who was at the Capitol protest in '71, has a picture in the film of Kerry getting ready to throw, but it does not show what is in his hand.

"If you looked at the film carefully, the damn vets threw every damn thing they could," Butler said. "I think we just have to take John's word for that. . . . I've never heard him tell a lie."

Butler said he cannot predict what impact, if any, the film will have on the race.

Butler recalled showing a three-minute clip of "Going Upriver" at a North Carolina film festival in April, when he was part of a panel of filmmakers that included the director Michael Moore.

"Michael was there talking about an upcoming film of his called 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' which I thought was about Osama bin Laden," Butler said, referring to Moore's harsh portrayal of Bush and the Iraq war that set box-office records this summer. "After I'd shown my clip, 15 minutes into the panel, Michael leans over and says to me, 'You know, George, if your film shows as much interesting stuff about John Kerry as your three-minute clip, you may have a good film."