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Motorcycle Diaries
Going Upriver

(Two films)
Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Review Date: 10
.06.04

The biopic "Motorcycle Diaries" and the documentary "Going Upriver" have at least one thing in common. Each tells the story of a man in his twenties who would later become an important political figure on the world scene.

"Motorcycle Diaries" is part travelogue, part road trip, part buddy flick. It stars the compelling Gael Garcia Bernal as young Ernesto Guevara. Guevara is just a year or so shy of completing his medical studies when he and an older pal resurrect an ancient motorcycle and take an 8,000 mile journey around South America. Along the way, Ernesto picks up the nickname Che. And he keeps a diary, which became the basis for the script.

The actors are fine and the landscapes are breathtaking. And if the writing in the movie diary is verbatim Che, then he was a stirring wordsmith, a poet, even. And certainly, one of the most adulated revolutionaries in modern history is an exciting subject for a film.

But there’s something missing from this gentle drama. I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe it’s that it’s a dramaless drama. Because the fact is, not much really happens in this film.

I can see that the director, Walter Salles, intends the quietness. We are, I think, to understand that revolutionary commitment need not necessarily require a series of violent confrontations. The slow cataloguing of injustices can have the same effect on a sensitive soul. It shouldn’t bother me, I suppose, that Salles deliberately withholds a defining moment. But the closest we come to excitement is a nighttime swim across a narrow stretch of the Amazon. Will the asthmatic Che make it to the far shore before he runs out of breath or is attacked by piranhas? You’ll have to find out for yourself.

I don’t want to discourage you from seeing it. The preponderance of critical opinion is that "Motorcycle Diaries" is a fine film. But I doubt I’ll go back to find out why.

That’s not the case with "Going Upriver". I’ve seen this one twice, and would see it again. "Going Upriver" is painful to watch. It’s billed as the story of the young John Kerry, (which it is) but it’s as much a retelling of America’s war against the Vietnamese, and of the founding of Vietnam Vets Against The War.

For anyone who came of age during that senseless and despicable war, this will be a powerful flashback. Each time I watched it I was moved to tears. And would be again, I’m sure. With restraint, good taste, and terrific editing, Director George Butler, takes us through the period of Kerry’s time in Vietnam as the skipper of a Swift boat, his return home and subsequent disillusionment with that conflict, and his involvement with and leadership role in Vietnam Vets Against The War.

Voiceovers against a backdrop of old newsreels and stills tell the story.
Max Cleland tells us: Wars are not over when the shooting stops. They live on in the lives of those who fought the war. Whether it’s WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan – war changes people.

It forever changed John Kerry. Yes, "Going Upriver" IS a biased film, but an intelligent viewer can comb that from the movie and still be left with an important document. Santayana’s admonition concerning historical amnesia remains apt for our times. Don’t miss this film. Consider it a civic duty.