Upriver Across America

Election '04

It's 1 p.m. in Battleground Ohio. In less than 90 hours the polls will open for what is now commonly known as Most Important Election of Our Lifetime. As with every swing state, the campaign to convert every last undecided voter still rages, and on this last Friday before Nov. 2 it is taking the form of a screening of Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry on the campus of the University of Cincinnatti.

At least some of the estimated 500 students assembled at UC's student union may be more interested in the guests that have been assembled to present and participate in a post-screening Q&A about the cinematic story of John Kerry's combat experience, his participation with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations hearing in 1971. Actors Paul Newman and Brenden Fraser are on hand, as are former Republican Congressman and Vietnam vet Pete McCloskey and author Douglas Brinkley, whose Kerry biography Tour of Duty provided the inspiration for the film. Even Jeff "the Dude" Dowd, the slacker-king inspiration for The Big Lebowski, overcame his amotivational syndrome to represent in Ohio.

By now, setting up screenings of a John Kerry documentary may seem like preaching to the choir, but Going Upriver director George Butler sees something more important happening. This screening is one of nearly 1000 that have taken place over the last several weeks at college campuses across the nation. According to Butler, while many students drawn to see the film may have intended to vote for whoever they considered the lesser of two evils, they are leaving with a changed outlook. "A woman just came in the door," he says. "And said exactly this: 'Before seeing the movie I was against George Bush. After seeing the movie I am for John Kerry.' I think that explains it in a very eloquent way."

Butler – a longtime friend of Kerry's who first rose to national attention as the director of Pumping Iron, the bodybuilding documentary that catapulted Arnold Schwartzenegger to fame – has introduced the film at events in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. He flew south last week for a screening at Florida State University, hit Iowa yesterday, and drives to Columbus this afternoon for the final screening at Ohio State. Altogether he's appeared at 20 screenings, with Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Ed Norton, Reese Witherspoon and Dermot Mulroney rounding out the list of celebrity appearances.

The DVD screenings were set up by MoveOn.org's Student Action Network to take place after the conclusion of Going Upriver's recent 200-city theatrical run, although the announcement of Sinclair Broadcasting's October 22 airdate for anti-Kerry documentary Stolen Honor gave the screenings added purpose. Butler sued Sinclair for unauthorized use of his own photos and footage from Going Upriver, subsequently accepting an invitation by Sinclair to represent Kerry for the "news program" that ran in Stolen Honor's place.

"Sinclair gave me equal time with my film," says Butler, who was interviewed for the broadcast. "I think we completely converted that program. We demanded equal time. Sinclair was put under national pressure. They buckled. They turned it into a news program, and I think the sequences from my film were much more interesting [than the scenes from Stolen Honor]."

Aside from that appearance, Butler has been going full throttle screening his film and giving Q&As. "We did one last night at Iowa State, and it went on for about an hour," he says. "There were a lot of questions about Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, because my film deals with that and John O'Neill, and how Nixon couldn't find any disputes in the official records of John Kerry's naval medals."

In the fray of politically themed films released in advance of this election, Going Upriver has managed to stay relatively unscathed and untargeted by the right-wing machine. "I think the Republicans are very fearful that any attention they give the film will double its audience," says Butler. "They also know I made Pumping Iron, which launched Arnold's career. They didn't want to damage that."

If anything, the screenings are the culmination of how important and unprecedented the power of film has become in this election. The floodgates were opened by Fahrenheit 9/11, followed by a documentary about Kerry's swift boat crewmates titled Brothers in Arms, Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed, a film about Karl Rove titled Bush's Brain, and a few hastily produced pro-Republican answer films.

They are also a sign of the renewed effectiveness of organizers on the political left after decades or dormancy. Erick Streckfuss, a history major and president of UC's College Democrats, helped to organize and promote today's screening. "We did all the advertising," he says. "It was great. There were about 500 people in the room that came to hear the panelists and see the film. Honestly, I think and hope a few minds were changed.... We had a few people who came in who shunned the stickers and Kerry gear on the way in, who by the end were applauding with everyone else and embracing it."

Streckfuss describes the campus as conservative-leaning, "Although we're winning the button and sticker war." A turnout of 500 is gives a good indication of how effective campus activism is at a time when students are increasingly strapped for tuition and faced with the spectre of a renewed draft. Multiply that by the 989 other screenings in 48 states organized by MoveOn.org, according to Student Action Network director Ben Brandzel, and you get a pretty good barometric reading of how passionate undergrads are about the current political climate.

It's also a testament to how Going Upriver transcends the propaganda factor. "It's the story of John Kerry," says Brandzel from MoveOn's Washington D.C. headquarters, "But it's more the story of an entire generation of student veterans and activists that came together and, using the power that they had in a democracy, overcame a corrupt, insatiable administration and ended an unjust war."

Brandzel sees a very clear correlation between the current mood on campus and the period when Vietnam-era activism reached a critical mass. "When that happened they were unstoppable, and our hope is to build a connection in people's minds between the activist consciousness that George W. Bush has awakened in the progressive population – particularly in young people – and the need to dig in for the long haul and to rally around inspirational leadership. It's the kind of leadership that Kerry provided 30 years ago and the kind we hope he can provide today."

Actor Brenden Fraser saw the film nine days earlier, and felt compelled to act as well. "I can't sit still," he says. "It's unhealthful to shout at the television when I don't agree with what I'm seeing in regards to news coverage.

"The film is a lightning rod. It was eye-opening to me. I didn't have a clear picture of who Kerry was; to be honest, I only had a two-dimensional pencil sketch of understanding. Now it's like I have a three-dimensional, crystalline portrait. I was able to step back in time and see who this guy is, and admire him for his courage, his patience, his leadership qualities, his intelligence, and the ability to do what he did: to testify."

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