One of the subjects I’ve been saturated, marinated, and drowned in this year is that of political documentaries. But, in the end, can we really take any of them seriously? SXSW 2004 premiered a few (Bush’s Brain, perhaps most notably), doing our small part to the bigger machine around us. Then there’s the stuff like Fahrenheit 9/11, or Outfoxed, or The Hunting of the President (which we also screened, after it played Sundance).
All of these films have found enormous support, as well as some opposition, due more to their politics than their filmmaking. So, I’ve learned to take all of these political documentaries with a grain of salt.
After all of this has been said and done, I walked into George Butler’s Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry expecting the next notch in the belt of 2004 political documentaries. And, while it’s not the best in documentary filmmaking, I was relieved and refreshed to find this latest release to be far removed from any of the other political docs. How so? Going Upriver has been unfairly lumped into the stable of political docs because the primary character is running for President. But, in the end, it’s a Vietnam documentary. And while we need another Vietnam documentary like we need another terminal illness documentary, it’s a breath of fresh air. But really, Going Upriver belongs in the canon with Vietnam docs like Hearts and Minds or Regret to Inform.
Going Upriver is more a historical document, and less a current events snapshot. In fact, there’s practically no mention of John Kerry’s career after the Vietnam era. Now, of course we all know that he goes on to run for President, and that’s what makes his saga so interesting, but at least it’s handled in a relatively subtle way. The biggest problem with the 2004 class of political docs is that they overstate the over-obvious. We all know Bush can’t speak well. We all know Iraq has turned into a mess. Going Upriver doesn’t beat you over the head with its politics, it simply says, “Here’s the story of a Vietnam hero who later went on to protest the war.”
Meanwhile, I can say that the film’s “hidden” political agenda worked on me. Seeing Kerry in the film, I found myself liking him more and more. Not that I was about to vote Bush, but Going Upriver helped me realize what a well-spoken and intelligent man Kerry seems to be. And the key? Butler lets the film do the talking. No overbearing narration, no Kerry speaking unless it’s archival footage. I have my doubts that Michael Moore Hates America maintains as much reserve.