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Political documentaries rock the vote

A review of Uncovered: The War on Iraq (NR) and *Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (NR)


Going Upriver, The Long War of John Kerry will be - available on DVD Oct. 19.
  • Going Upriver, The Long War of John Kerry will be available on DVD Oct. 19.

Uncovered: The War on Iraq (NR)

*Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (NR)

As Election Day draws near, going to the movies feels increasingly like switching on infomercials, and they're all selling the same thing: regime change in the White House.

Thanks to Fahrenheit 9/11's $117 million gross, such peppy pieces of propaganda have become viable at the box office -- at least in limited, art-house runs. Even Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, initially seen only through mail order or special parties, has made it to theaters. The latest releases, Uncovered: The War on Iraq and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, provide this year's equivalent of political "balance" to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and right-wing radio. Uncovered skins the usual Republican suspects, while Going Upriver lionizes the Democratic standard-bearer.

Like well-read grad students protesting the World Trade Organization, 2004's cinematic crusaders all muster high emotions and urgent messages. The ones more dedicated to telling richly cinematic stories than scoring political points will extend their shelf lives beyond 2004.

Director Robert Greenwald, who also directed Outfoxed, takes a sober approach in Uncovered, beginning -- as if to pre-empt conservative criticism -- with the expert interviewees blandly stating their foreign policy credentials for the camera. Like its cinematic peers, Uncovered breaks little news but revisits and synthesizes material already reported. More effectively than Fahrenheit 9/11, Uncovered explodes the Bush administration's decisions to declare war on Iraq and provides devastating reality checks on the "yellowcake uranium" State of the Union speech and Colin Powell's United Nations address.

These documentaries' ire at the mainstream media nearly equals their indignation at right-wing misdeeds. Nearly all of the movies feature a "message-of-the-day" montage of manipulative statements echoing across the airwaves. In Uncovered, White House officials downplay the need for painstaking examination of Iraq's WMD programs, lest "the smoking gun turns out to be a mushroom cloud."

Though the protest pictures provide infuriatingly effective polemics, they can lack the human drama of timeless documentaries. They prove most moving when individuals share their experiences, like grieving mother Lila Lipscomb in Fahrenheit 9/11. Uncovered argues an airtight case against the handling of the Iraqi war, but lacks the personal touch.

Going Upriver finds such a subject in John Kerry, whose early years embody the extremes of America's Vietnam experience. Director George Butler based the film on Tour of Duty, Douglas Brinkley's approving account of Kerry's experiences with war abroad and protest at home, and recently re-edited the film to answer the attacks of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Going Upriver, not surprisingly, shines a flattering light on Kerry but resists being pigeonholed as a "campaign video."

By dredging up U.S. abuses in the Vietnam War and the despairing rage of the protest movement, Going Upriver stirs up raw emotions, rather than comforting the viewer with the prospect of the candidate's virtues. The film's engrossing centerpiece provides a day-by-day recap of the 1971 Vietnam Veterans Against the War activities in Washington, including Kerry's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Apart from a climactic montage of still photos, he appears solely in archival footage at least 30 years old. You can't help but notice that the young Kerry speaks with more confidence and moral clarity about Vietnam before the Senate than the presidential candidate does about Iraq on the stump.

Butler's evocation of history makes Going Upriver feel far more levelheaded than the other documentaries' rabble-rousing appeals to get out the vote. Fahrenheit 9/11 and its kindred spirits light a fire under the base rather than appeal to swing voters. Not until the night of Nov. 2 will we know if they made the sale.

Currently not showing in Colorado Springs; both films will be available Oct. 19 on DVD.

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