What a difference 90 minutes makes. After I finished watching John Kerry dominate G.W. Bush in Thursday night’s debate, I had to scrap what I’d intended to write about Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. Not my opinion of the film–it’s fascinating–but the context of my review has changed. I’d planned to write an elegiac, melancholy review that lamented the demise of a certain kind of public citizen–an articulate, educated man of action and contemplation–in the debased theater of modern politics. Prior to Thursday’s showdown, I had little optimism that the graying, compromised figure that John Kerry has become would be able to cut through the stringent debate rules and score meaningful points against a president who seems tailor-made for the crude sloganeering that passes for politics today.

But thanks to Kerry’s effective debate performance, it seems his political career will live to fight another day, and that changes the light in which I view Going Upriver to a rather more optimistic one. Going Upriver, directed by Kerry’s longtime friend George Butler (a filmmaker and photographer best known for Pumping Iron), is a curious film in that it’s clearly partisan but stops short–barely–of outright hagiography. In it, Kerry comes off as enigmatic as ever, but we begin to appreciate the very real moral choices of his generation, and then he comes off quite well.

(The Michael Moore-ish gibes about whether and when the Bush girls will enlist in their father’s war obscure a very important point: Who in our generation of college-educated 18 to 35 year olds is presently encountering the moral reckoning that was forced upon Kerry, Bush, Clinton and thousands of others two generations ago? Then again, there may be an as-yet unknown future political star toiling in the Special Forces in Afghanistan as I write this.)

Kerry’s honorable service in the military is partly a function of being slightly older than Bush and Clinton. As we learn in Going Upriver, Kerry graduated from Yale in 1965, a time when earnest and ambitious Ivy Leaguers still believed in the domino theory, haircuts were still on the short side and the Beatles had yet to record Sgt. Pepper. And the Tet Offensive was still three years away. Both Clinton and Bush had their days of reckoning on the other side of the Tet tipping point, when the war became widely unpopular and obviously life-threatening. But as Butler’s film makes clear, America was different in 1965 and Kerry and his fellow Yalie BMOCs, inspired by the activist ethics of JFK, fully believed in the necessity of saving Vietnam from Communism.

Going Upriver takes us through the well-worn narrative: Kerry’s initially cushy Swift Boat commission becoming much deadlier than he’d bargained for, his four months of combat, his injuries and heroism, his disillusionment and discharge. All of this is accompanied by commentary from Kerry’s peers–some from school and some not, like former Senator and fellow vet Max Cleland–and archival film footage that frequently shows Kerry in uniform and in action. We’re informed that the Swift Boat casualty rate was appallingly high: 75-90 percent. After his third wound, Kerry was allowed to leave Vietnam. He then returned to the States and assumed a leadership role with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).

All of this is familiar, yet there’s a certain poignancy in seeing so much footage of someone who nevertheless remains such an enigma. For all the home movies of his childhood and the surprising amount of footage from his Yale years, one can’t escape feeling that Kerry’s life has been a solitary, even lonely, one. He seems to have taken himself very seriously from an early age, and to have been the kind of earnest, overachieving, student government-debater type who elicits snickers and rolled eyes. Although his old acquaintances speak of him admiringly, there’s not much deeply felt warmth.

The most stirring footage in the film concerns Kerry’s antiwar activities, a subject that his campaign has preferred to avoid. Particular attention is given to the VVAW’s weeklong demonstration in Washington in April 1971, a rally that culminated in two of Kerry’s most controversial actions: his speech before the Senate Foreign Relations committee and his participation in the medal tossing ceremony. In both instances, his political ambitions were clearly on his mind.

His Senate appearance was solicited by Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas (who was also a patron of young Bill Clinton), and it was a marvel of televised theater. Kerry hustled into the chamber, fresh from the ongoing demonstration, wearing fatigues and surrounded by similarly clad comrades. His eloquent and impassioned speech (“How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?”) gave a persuasive voice to thousands of angry, shaggy, less-educated soldiers and sent tremors through the Nixon White House.

Equally interesting is the medal tossing demonstration. Butler gives us generous footage of enraged warriors making fiery denunciations of their government’s mendacity before hurling their medals and other relics onto the Capitol steps. But Kerry surely knew he couldn’t afford to be filmed in such a pique, and he opted for a short, restrained speech and a gentle toss of his decorations. (For some reason, Butler eschews moving pictures of Kerry at this point in favor of black and white stills. Butler clearly edited this sequence with great care; although the filmmaker is officially independent of the Kerry campaign, one wonders if he’s bowing to their desire to downplay the episode.)

Kerry’s appearance on television made him a star, and the Nixon White House swung into action. The infamous Oval Office taping system recorded nervous exchanges between Kissinger, Nixon and Haldeman about the craggy upstart. In response, the administration quickly recruited a counterforce named John O’Neill to head up an opposing veteran’s organization that would support Nixon’s policy of gradual disengagement, or Vietnamization. In Going Upriver, Butler includes a short clip of Kerry’s subsequent June 1971 debate with O’Neill on the Dick Cavett show. Kerry is a relaxed and persuasive presence, but it’s striking how old-fashioned his Yale-honed forensics skills seem today. Indeed, his less polished opponent adopts a relentlessly personal attack strategy–repeatedly making snide references to his opponent’s elite breeding–and avoiding Kerry’s desire for a complex dialogue. Unfortunately, the O’Neill approach is now the political gold standard, and Kerry’s style has changed accordingly. As strong as Kerry was against Bush last week, he has little left of the rhetorical elegance he possessed in 1971. (This John O’Neill never gave up; he was the man behind the Swift Veterans for Truth attack ads. His Web site is worth a visit because it contains a link to the entire, hour-long Cavett debate: swift1.he.net/~swiftvet/index.php.

Some of the Vietnam footage in Going Upriver was shot by Kerry himself, and much of the rest is Butler’s own; he recognized Kerry’s potential upon meeting him while a student at UNC and set about documenting his political ascent. If Kerry remains a mystery in spite of all this footage, it’s possible that this impersonal (impenetrable?) quality may serve him well as president. Still, one image from Going Upriver is deeply haunting, and for me, humanizes Kerry more than any other. It’s a shot of Kerry, past soldier and future politician, sitting in the Washington Mall after the medal-toss, with his knees drawn to his chin, his face buried in his arms and being cradled by his wife. With this single photograph, we see evidence of the terrible toll Vietnam took on the people who were there, on anonymous grunts and on meticulously composed rising stars like John Kerry.