Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry
Director: George Butler. Documentary. Profile of John Kerry's military service and antiwar activism. Interview subjects include Max Cleland, Richard Holbrooke, Bob Kerrey, Douglas Brinkley, Dan Barbiero, Bobby Muller, Chris Gregory, Rusty Sachs, Joe Klein, James Rassmann, Neil Sheehan. Screenplay: Joseph Dorman (based on the book Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War by Douglas Brinkley).

The Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta)
Director: Walter Salles. Cast: Gael García Bernal, Rodrigo De la Serna, Jorge Chiarella, Gustavo Bueno, Mía Maestro, Brandon Cruz, Vilma M. Verdejo, Susana Lanteri, Constanza B. Majluf, Evelyn Ibarra, Jackelyne Vásquez, Antonella Costa, Delfina Paredes, Nemesio Reyes, Hernan Herrera, Alberto Granado. Screenplay: Jose Rivera (based on the books Notes on a Latin American Journey/Notas de viaje by Ernesto "Ché" Guevara and Traveling with Che Guevara: The Making of a Revolutionary/Con el Che por Sudamérica by Alberto Granado).

Where does heroism come from? It's a worthy question and a tricky one, and The Motorcycle Diaries and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry are two films that seem poised to suggest an answer. Actually, though, these movies chase a different and, I dare say, an even more difficult mystery. Where does an idea come from? How and when does a mind change, and how can we tell when a minding is changing, even when it's our own?

I am not talking about "flip-flopping," and neither, mercifully, is Going Upriver. This documentary, not directly sponsored by Kerry's presidential campaign but well-connected to his confidants and sympathetic to his talking points, restricts itself to the period from the mid-1960's to the early 1970's when Kerry passed through the dual crucibles of an unpopular war and an equally unpopular antiwar crusade. The vagaries of today's political rhetoric are not explictly engaged or addressed, though you could certainly take Going Upriver as a 90-minute advertisement for the notion that lived experience and evolving circumstances can, in fact, change a person's ideological positions and that remaining open to such changes may, in fact, be the height of ethical reasoning. For some reason, Kerry and his strategists have been flailing around for months trying to find a cogent way to make this seemingly obvious point—is there anyone on this planet, beyond recognized psychotics and money-sickened plutocrats, who don't concede this truth?—but for its part, Going Upriver tows this line just fine.

In any case, Going Upriver is about the past predicaments of John Kerry and not his present ones, except insofar as the former obviously inform the latter. It's basically a hagiographic memory piece about a valorized ex-soldier standing up to his country's government and helping to organize thousands of his fellows to do the same. Truly, it's almost too kind to call Going Upriver a documentary; the film has almost no interest in contextualizing these issues beyond Kerry's personal invovlement and budding leadership, nor does the movie press itself into such obvious areas of interest as what Kerry's enemies might have thought or what the measurable effects of his protests turned out to be. Formal dexterity is even farther from this movie's concerns, and despite the recruitment of brand-name talent like editor Tim Squyres (who cuts Ang Lee's movies) and composer Philip Glass (who all but recycles his Fog of War motifs), Going Upriver is almost aggressively modest in look, sound, and construction. The testimonies of close friends like Max Cleland and the gratitude of fellow soldiers whose lives Kerry saved are the real engines that power the film, with predictably flattering results. A photo montage over the closing credits acknowledges—though wordlessly and out of any political, narrative, or even chronological context—that John Kerry has in fact had something of a public career over the last three decades. Otherwise, you might never guess.

This extreme narrowing of the film's focus is both its most patent shortcoming and its greatest asset. The one-sidedness of the project is so pronounced that, almost by definition, it can't stand up to much scrutiny, even from likely sympathizers. You know you're watching something laundered and carefully plotted; there's even a screenplay credit, which doesn't mean the whole documentary has been worked out in advance, but it does put the viewer immediately on alert to the scrupulous framing of what he or she is about to see. Still, the admittedly romantic and quietly didactic impulse behind Going Upriver deserves to survive our skepticism and cynicism, at least to some degree. The film's mission, however nostalgic if not outright naïve, is to distill acts of physical bravery and moral intrepidity—what Kerry's political heroes and shepherds would almost certainly call a profile in courage. Every political and intellectual bone in my body sort of rebels against the idea that courage can be fairly evoked in such one-dimensional and purposely under-contextualized terms, but Going Upriver is lucky enough to have at its disposal a genuinely charismatic figure whose sense of his own citizenship is rigorous, questioning, and articulate. You have to relinquish your intuition that there's a larger story to be told here, and also your wish that Kerry seemed as focused and potent now as he was through these formative chapters of his life. Frankly, these are not ideas I was eager to suspend, even for an hour and a half. Nonetheless, with those caveats supplied, Going Upriver works. The sight of Kerry mollifying the well-earned outrage of crowds of veterans, and soon afterward of Kerry dressing down the Nixon administration via the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, doesn't fail to inspire even within this manifestly biased showcase.

The filmmakers and their assembled talking heads at least have the sense to admit that some of Kerry's more hot-tempered and less patrician-looking comrades resented his comely and silver-tongued public performances. We'd also have to be biased indeed not to notice the narcissistic pleasure Kerry seems to take in his conspicuous displays of leadership. His self-consciously choreographed and controversial renunciation of his military medals gets almost as much screen-time here as does the Foreign Relations testimony itself, and Kerry's own absence from the picture doesn't help. He only appears in archival footage and in an unattributed voiceover monologue over the final scenes; we see an image of the timeworn Senator flying over Vietnam in a helicopter, though it is also impossible to tell from whence this shot derives, or what we are to make of it. Still, if you're a documentarian looking to isolate an instance of a real person doing the right thing, you could do worse than settle on this well-spoken, idealistic, impressionable young man, who did risk his own person in combat and his own political ambitions in repeatedly, doggedly denouncing the war in which he fought. The palpable change of heart that Kerry underwent is the glory of the film. One particularly moving shot is the profile closeup on Kerry as he solicits and records the testimonies of other former soldiers at the VVAW's Winter Soldier conference in Detroit. These accounts were often grislier than Kerry's own, and his face as he receives them tells us much about the conversion happening inside his own mind. Going Upriver convinces us that, however carefully it coddles its subject, this man nonetheless looked into the heart of something terrible and complex when it most mattered to do so, and he denounced it in the language it deserved. The movie is careful not to claim much more than this, for better and for worse, but because it mostly holds its ambitions and its rhetoric in check, you can't simply discount the whole picture as positive PR pap.

The Motorcycle Diaries, a fictionalized reconstruction of scenes from the memoirs of Ernesto "Ché" Guevara and Alberto Granado, is also about learning, voyaging, leaving the comfortable in favor of the compelling, and following the needle of an invisible moral compass as it tilts in new directions. The crowning symbol of this film, too, is a river crossing: young Ché, coming to the end of a long sojourn in a Peruvian leper colony, swims across the wide Amazon in the middle of the night, leaving his own birthday party in a gesture of solidarity with the patients segregated to the opposite bank. Screenwriter Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles position this bold but also vainglorious moment as the pinnacle of their drama, which doesn't start or end at predictable points. The scene could hardly be more schematic—the have-nots dialectically isolated from the have-a-littles, with only the newly enlightened Ché to join and inspire these disparate groups—but it still summons a surprisingly emotional response. In one sense, this just shows you what a little camera movement and amplified sound can do for a movie that has been bashfully, conservatively stolid for most of its running time. The images and the soundtrack suddenly come alive when the film needs Ché to inherit his spiritual mantle as a savior and soldier: it's an easy trick, but again, it works.

It's fair to ask whether Salles' film, like the Kerry biography, only works because we are presently so starved for genuine leadership that even flawed and sentimental praise-poems to past generational icons can rouse our attention, awaken our belief. And actually, the films have to do more than invoke heroes of the past. Going Upriver is stuck lionizing a spokesman and avoiding his future, compromised career as a politician. The Motorcycle Diaries wants to say something sensitive and inspiring about Ché Guevara without really dealing with who Ché would become and what he would do. Detractors have alleged that the film just melts away if you don't arrive with a future knowledge of this young, grey-eyed traveler already in tow, though I can't say I agree. It's actually more frustrating to watch Diaries this way—the only way to connect Gael Garcia Bernal's Ché to the revolutionary icon of later years is to skip what is arguably the most crucial passages in his life: how do you go from sympathizing with lepers and taking your first notice of poverty to leading an entire movement within a national revolution, thousands of miles from home? The Motorcycle Diaries can't say, and it makes things so that it isn't required to say.

Really, this is just a boys-on-the-road odyssey, with a political awakening threaded through the second half. I'll admit that for the first hour, I rejected the film pretty completely. Bernal is, as always, compulsively watchable, and newcomer Rodrigo De la Serna, a descendant of Ché cast here as Alberto, is a lusty, good-humored, affable companion without getting stuck as a second-banana. If anything, he is more compelling than Bernal, and he makes off with the picture without ever looking like he's trying to steal it: it's a vivacious and winning performance. Still, the performances are all that Salles seems prepared to offer through the early passages, as we pass through some compulsory regrets about homebound girlfriends, some predictable machismo about what it means to rough it on a bike and smell the fresh air, and some requisite landscape shots of admittedly gorgeous South American vistas. These images are meant to participate in Ché's deepening love affair with his continent and its people, but they're also patently here to sell the movie to traveloguing audiences in suburbs, urban art theaters, and Croisettes around the globe. Daniel Rezende's editing rhythms, so charged and gripping if, admittedly, a little overdone in City of God, are resoundingly obedient to a rather banal narrative metronome here. No one seems ready to take charge of the picture, but it's such a generic entertainment for a while that it needs taking charge of; this isn't one of those Third Cinema projects that makes a virtue and a statement out of denying the conventions of heroic protagonists and subservient ensembles. It's just a meandering little ode to fields and sky and youth, and we've seen it all before.

If anything, Bernal's last movie, the persuasively raunchy and wittily photographed Y tu mamá también is both a more succulent dish and a more potent political piece. The Cuarón film very nearly poses a choice between libidinal satisfaction and social awareness; the Charolastros miss every salient detail of Mexico as they drive, because they're too busy thinking about Luisa's breasts, though Cuarón had the grace to make a movie that takes sex seriously and avoids moralizing against it. The Motorcycle Diaries pushes Bernal as a matinée idol while ensconcing his proletarian commitments a little dewily: he gets to have it all in this rendering, and the force of conflict is nearly imperceptible until an unexpected motif starts to shape the character and the film. I refer to Ché's habitual honesty, an insistence on God's honest truth that keeps prompting awkward situations and a few physical scrapes, but it's the first and most concrete personal attribute that The Motorcycle Diaries manages to ascribe to him. When Ché and Alberto pass some time with Dr. Hugo Pesce, a Peruvian specialist in leprosy, the man's knowledge, hospitality and dignity (all well-rendered by the actor Gustavo Bueno) instantly grip us. The film suddenly feels like it has real people in it. So we're surprised by a tart encounter—actually, a farewell—in which Dr. Pesce asks his departing guests for their reactions to the novel manuscript that has been his pet project for years. Alberto is encouraging, but Ché denounces the whole effort. The doctor understands the criticism but is clearly nursing a wholly unexpected disappointment. The Motorcycle Diaries has needed one moment where we aren't sure whom to sympathize with, and it gets it from this seemingly peripheral scene.

By the time our young comrades arrive in the leper colony where the film will conclude, they are so eager to prove their solidarity with the unwashed that they offend most of the nuns who make a life of caring for them and trod, however gently, on most of the establishment's rules. In other words, the film credibly pairs the dawn of political enlightenment with a growing potential for rudeness and social abrasiveness. These do-gooders make mistakes on their way to saving the world, and as a result, we can finally relate to them.

The saddest, bravest, and best thing in The Motorcycle Diaries is its final sequence, which begins with Alberto seeing Ché off on an airplane flight heading northward. "All this time we spent on the road—something happened," our hero tells his friend, "something I'll have to think about for a long time. All this injustice." It's not a terribly textured speech, and that's why it works: The Motorcycle Diaries resists any urge toward a rousing climax and situates itself as plaintive food for thought, an ode in an unexpectedly minor key. As Ché's plane sails into the sky, Alberto inherits narratorial responsibilities, and he is even more lucid and honest about the actual complexities that this often nostalgic film has occasionally seemed to suppress. "This is not a tale of heroic feats," Alberto enjoins us, and because of how raffishly and casually De la Serna has played the role, we believe him. "Were our conclusions too rigid? Maybe." After a black-and-white photo montage of scenes from their journey—culminating, tellingly, with the stalwart figure of a slavedriving overseer from Valparaíso, Chile—the film cuts to the real Alberto Granado, who is now more than 70 years old. He watches an identical-looking plane sail into an identical-looking sky, and the tearful glimmer in his eye renders uncertain what he is seeing: the still-beating promise of what he and Ché learned, or the unrealized (and perhaps unrealizable) dream of everything they hoped to accomplish? Where Going Upriver reconciles itself to a single-minded approach early on, The Motorcycle Diaries progresses from a film that's too eager to please into a document that's too wise to settle all of our questions or silence all of our longings. By no means is Walter Salles above manipulating his audience, but he ultimately manipulates us into a standpoint from which we might think, or even act, rather than simply fantasize or remember. If you're going to go on a journey, even as a filmgoer plunked down in a cushioned seat, that isn't a bad place to wind up. Grades: Upriver: B–; Diaries: B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Adapted Screenplay: José Rivera
Best Original Song: "Al Otro Lado del Rio"

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Foreign-Language Film

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Prize of the Ecumenical Jury; Technical Grand Prize (Eric Gautier, cinematographer; also cited for Clean)
Independent Spirit Awards: Best Debut Performance (De la Serna); Best Cinematography (Gautier)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Foreign-Language Film; Best Original Score

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