Going Upriver: Review

Mr. Athenae and I were among the approximately six people who took shelter from a perfect autumn day inside a dark movie theater to see “Going Upriver” on Sunday.

The DNC should be sponsoring free showings of this film in every city in every swing state. It brings home the reality of the war to younger voters who didn’t live through it, and reminds those who did (if the four other older audience members, who laughed and clapped and cried at various points are any indication) of its vividness and horror.

In the first place, the parallels to today are unavoidable. During the Winter Soldier hearings, a man points to a photo of himself, holding up the body of a Vietnamese man and smiling broadly for the camera. I instantly thought of Lyndie England and her vicious joy bending over a bodybagged Iraqi. The disdain of long-ago Congressmen for Gold Star Mothers who protested at the Capitol … how different are we today, hauling out and arresting a Gold Star Mother who dares speak up at a Laura Bush tea party?

The great achievement of the film, I think, is the way it takes you back to a time we’ve been painting in slogans and half-truths, Forrest Gump-style popular nostalgia, ever since. Vietnam was my father’s war, not mine. I have many friends from that era, who fought in the war and fought against it, and who were all profoundly altered by it. And when they speak about it, which isn’t often (true patriots not needing to constantly proclaim their patriotism), their overwhelming emotion is one of anger. My father, who made plans to flee to Canada before the war ended just in time, has a venom for Lyndon Johnson not unlike mine for George Bush. “He should be shot as a war criminal,” he often says, and no prattling of mine about the civil rights advancements of his adminstration can shake him. My dear friend Jay was in the National Guard, was among those who thought they were going to have to massacre civilians during the Dow Chemical riots at the University of Wisconsin. “We really believed,” he said once, “that we were going to train to kill Americans. We really thought there was going to be another civil war.”

Everyone who came out of that experience had raged, on one side or another, and it seemed to imbue them with a seriousness about the world and their place in it. Being reminded, in vivid images and passionate words in Butler’s film, of that anger helped me understand, not the what, which I knew, but the why of that seriousness. It may just be that I am lucky in my friends.

Not having lived through that time myself I don’t feel qualified to judge the truth of Butler’s depiction of it. But I know, we all in our own ways know, the importance of a leader in a time of chaos. When a man stands up, takes the fire, makes himself the guy everybody counts on, people gravitate to that person. When on the final day of Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s protest on the Mall, when secretaries and clerks and mimeograph girls came pouring out of the Capitol and the office buildings to stand with the veterans, stood up because somebody else stood up first, had I not been sold on Kerry as a leader before then, that would have been all I needed to know.

And the film is the one forum, the one indisputable visual outlet, that shows “Swift Boat Veteran for Truth” John O’Neill for what he is, a faithless little stooge, a tiny, tiny man whose will was only to do his Nixonian masters’ bidding, a vile excuse for a patriotic America. Video of Kerry’s debate, er, demolition of O’Neill on Cavett’s show has been available for some time, but seeing it after nearly an hour of evidence to the contrary of every statement O’Neill made was both enraging and humiliating. The latter, because we did it again. By letting this Gollum slither onto our television screens and into our newspapers and spew his lies again, we let Colson and Nixon and Haldemann reach out from beyond the political graveyard where they belong and again infect us with their slime.

We let them attach a disclaimer to Kerry’s service, so that any mention of it now must needs be qualified to say that some people (O’Neill barely rates inclusion in this group) dispute it. Some people. Some people in the person of this seersucker-clad snake-oil salesman, who is not worthy of accepting a collect call, much less uncounted hours of free television time. We should be ashamed of ourselves as a country, for even once letting this manifestation of a politics we profess to abhor resurface and speak in public.

I learned something about Kerry from the film. I learned why people find him worthy of loyalty, why his former shipmates were willing to speak out even when it seemed no one wanted to hear them. I learned why he, as Republicans seeking to justify their slime like to say, “made a big deal out of Vietnam” in his campaign. To run for president you have to tell people who you are. It’s not easy to speak about the things that shape your heart, because those things can be dark, and painful. But the need is there, and Kerry spoke the truth.

Great leaders, I think, inspire us not because of what we see in them but what they can make us see in ourselves. Watching and listening as John Kerry spoke about the country he loved and fought for, I couldn’t help but think that I would like to live in that place, that place he’s talking about. I couldn’t help but think, I want to be lead by people who think like that, who believe and live and love like that.

And come Nov. 3, I believe I will be.