In league with extraordinary gentlemen

Going Upriver, George Butler’s documentary about John Kerry, tells the story of Kerry’s two wars—Vietnam and the peace movement

Director George Butler interviewing a young John Kerry on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.

Director George Butler interviewing a young John Kerry on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.

Filmmaker George Butler has made a career of profiling extraordinary men. One of his documentary subjects became famous as a result of his first film and is now governor of California. Another survived 18 months stranded in the Antarctic, crossing an ice shelf on foot and returning to save his entire crew. The latest is a longtime friend of Butler’s who currently is running for president.

“You can’t understand John unless you understand what Vietnam is to him and to his life. It is absolutely essential to understanding him.”That’s the first line of Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, Butler’s recent film—spoken by an unnamed narrator. The second, spoken by a second narrator, gives the thesis: “It’s one form of patriotism to go, which he did. Then, if you see that what’s happening is wrong, you also have a patriotic duty to speak out about it.” At the time of this interview, Butler was putting the finishing touches on the film, an adaptation of Tour of Duty, Douglas Brinkley’s account of Kerry’s Vietnam experience and subsequent role in the anti-war movement. Going Upriver opened in theaters on October 1 (and is available on DVD), as the 2004 election has come dangerously close to being a referendum on Kerry’s service during the Vietnam War. The documentary surely will be punditized and politicized, spun by the right and defended by the left until the public perception is far removed from the filmmaker’s intentions.However, the filmmaker, despite literally being a publicist for Kerry at a crucial time in both of their lives, has infused the film with honesty and authenticity that can be gained only through years of observation and interaction with his subject.

Butler conceived of a film about Kerry’s Vietnam experience in 2002. Brinkley’s book, published in 2004, later would provide a structure for the narrative. Butler, however, corresponded with Kerry at the time of his service and observed Kerry’s anti-war activities firsthand. Butler is a good storyteller—albeit one with an unavoidable subjective bias—and artfully weaves Vietnam footage with his own stills and interviews.

Yet, Butler might never have put his eye to a camera lens had he not learned how to live in Detroit on less than a dollar a day. Butler was a University of North Carolina undergrad when he met Yale-educated Kerry through a mutual friend. Harvey Bundy, the nephew of Lyndon B. Johnson-administration advisers William and McGeorge Bundy, had invited both Butler and Kerry to a family gathering in June 1964. Butler recalled the meeting in John Kerry: A Portrait, his recently published collection of photographs: “A tall figure, rail-thin and Lincolnesque, came across the grass. ‘Hi, I’m John Kerry,’ he said simply.”

The two hit it off immediately, and they maintained a correspondence throughout college. William Bundy inspired Kerry to serve in Vietnam; Butler was not swayed. Instead, he joined Volunteers in Service to America and was assigned to Detroit with an allowance of $5 a week. He published a community paper in a high-crime neighborhood, using the experience to sharpen his skills as a photographer. Kerry would give him his first extraordinary subject to shoot.

Upon receiving his discharge, Kerry made an unsuccessful run for Congress for which Butler served as a publicist. Kerry gravitated toward the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and quickly took on a leadership role. In 1971, he participated in the VVAW’s Winter Soldier Investigation meeting in Detroit as an observer and took the occasion to call on his friend Butler. The testimony—personal accounts of atrocities committed and witnessed—given by the Winter Soldier participants would be summarized by Kerry several months later when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I had never heard anything like this before in my life,” recalled Butler in his barely-a-whisper voice. “It was pretty stunning stuff.”

The VVAW decided to march on Washington in April of that year, dubbing the protest “Dewey Canyon III” after the code name for two secret missions into Cambodia that were familiar to most veterans. Kerry would speak before the committee at the behest of Senator J. William Fulbright. “I stayed involved and went on to Washington with John Kerry, and I handled some of the press for the vets,” said Butler. “I took a lot of photographs. I sat right behind John Kerry when he was testifying. I was sort of a key observer to the whole thing, and it was a pretty remarkable event. What’s interesting about it is the moral choice that John Kerry made to oppose the war, which might have made a political career very difficult indeed. But he did it with vigor and good sense.”

Butler’s photos would be published in 1972 in a book titled The New Soldier, a collaboration between Butler, Kerry and Kerry’s brother-in-law David Thorne. It was the last time Kerry and Butler would work together for some time. Butler went on to apply his experience working with Kerry to then-U.S. Representative Paul McCloskey’s run for president during the 1972 Republican primary. “I was his press secretary in the primary,” he said, “and it was backbreaking work. Campaign work is one of the hardest things there is. McCloskey obviously didn’t beat Nixon, but he made a pretty good run of it.”

George Butler, today.

Exhausted by the campaign work, Butler went into low gear for a while. He met a writer, Charles Gaines, who had just published a novel. Stay Hungry was made into a 1975 film starring Jeff Bridges; Sally Field; and a young, cocky Austrian bodybuilder with a heavy accent. By the mid-1970s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a god in the bodybuilding world but unknown to the mainstream. Schwarzenegger, who had dreamed of being in the movies since childhood, posed in front of Butler’s camera for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. “Then, Gaines and I wound up doing a book called Pumping Iron, and the rest is history,” said Butler.

Butler adapted the book for a documentary, filming the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest that pitted Schwarzenegger against Lou Ferrigno. Pumping Iron not only led to mainstream acceptance of bodybuilding and helped ignite the fitness craze of the 1970s; it also led to a career in film for its star and director. Butler went on to direct Pumping Iron II: The Women, which helped de-stigmatize the sport’s female participants, and two films about explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914-1916 expedition to the Antarctic, which left his ship trapped in ice and his crew marooned for 18 months.

Shackleton’s story gave Butler the chance to polish his documentary chops via a blend of photos from the expedition and breathtaking vistas shot on location. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition was narrated by Liam Neeson and released in 2000, followed a year later by a Kevin Spacey-narrated IMAX version. Butler had become a master documentarian, if not a prolific one, and his choice of subjects had begun to form a pattern. He portrayed extraordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things. Then his old anti-war, Vietnam-vet friend, whom he held in the highest regard, decided to do something extraordinary as well.

Kerry’s life ambition symbolically materialized during a junior-varsity soccer game in 1963, when news arrived about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Lt. j.g. Kerry served at first on a frigate, the U.S.S. Gridley, at sea as most Navy men did. Kerry was part of the first group of “brown-water” sailors who, in a newly devised policy, rode Swift boats up riverways, searching fishing boats and exchanging fire with an often unseen enemy. Kerry’s crew gives eyewitness accounts of the incidents for which Kerry was awarded his silver and bronze stars. The extreme loyalty and passion Butler has for Kerry is palpable in the film.

“Bear in mind—and this is something that my movie is going to show—that the combat in the river wars in the Mekong Delta was ferocious,” said Butler. “I’ve interviewed all of Kerry’s crew members. They were going into four firefights a day. If you saw the boats that had been shot up, it’s just awesome.” Max Cleland and Bob Kerrey also testify to the servicemen’s plight.

Little mention is made of Admiral Roy Hoffman, who took such offense at Brinkley’s gung-ho, kill-happy description of him that he became a prime mover in the creation of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVFT). SBVFT point man and lifelong Kerry foe John O’Neill, who took over command of Kerry’s boat, was not interviewed for the film and is portrayed as a pawn of the Nixon administration. Brinkley himself appears to sum up Kerry’s now-controversial discharge. (“Well, after John Kerry’s third Purple Heart, it was time to come home.”)

Although it’s true that most of the film was completed before the rise of the anti-Kerry Swiftees, the lack of attention to perceptions that counter Kerry’s version of his tour of duty is significantly noticeable. “We focused mainly on Vietnam and the peace movement when Kerry came back,” said Butler. “There are kind of two separate wars. They make very good stories. The story of Kerry’s life is a fascinating one. We’ve got some rip-roaring combat in the movie I’ve made.

“The thing is … it’s interesting. I’ve known John since ’64. In that length of time, you really know whether someone fibs or exaggerates. We’ve had thousands of encounters. If there had really been any doubt about his Purple Hearts or his other medals in 1971, Richard Nixon would have crushed him.”

Brinkley’s statement about Kerry’s third Purple Heart leads to the film’s transition to the “second war.” “He immediately experiences culture shock,” said Brinkley. “People are staring at him. He is in his Navy whites and medals, and nobody seems to care. And from that moment on, he started a new life, and that’s as a Vietnam veteran.”

Whether Kerry felt it was his duty to protest the war or calculated that a war-hero-turned-dissident image would lead to a successful political career could be proven only by reading Kerry’s mind. Butler presents a convincing argument through the words of Kerry’s comrades. If Kerry wanted a political career, why would he jeopardize it by putting himself out in front of the anti-war movement? If he were truly calculating, why didn’t he speak out against the un-winnable nature of the war (as O’Neill recommends) instead of emphasizing atrocities?

Kerry the anti-war protester is presented by Butler as courageous, compassionate and committed to public service. It’s a convincing portrayal, but what effect it will have on the voters remains to be seen. Butler says he is unaffected by the pressure; it wasn’t part of his motivation. “I’m the guy that made Pumping Iron,” he said, “and I made ‘Shackleton of the Antarctic.’ I tell good stories about people.”