Pumping Kerry

Shortly after sunset on a recent May evening, in an Upper East Side apartment cluttered with tchotchkes from Mongolia, Antarctica and other far-flung locales, veteran filmmaker George Butler removed the lid from a pristine orange box and treated a visitor to a rare preview of his latest project.

“This is John Kerry with John Lennon at a peace rally in Bryant Park,” he said, gesturing toward a glossy 1971 photograph of Mr. Kerry, then a budding anti-war leader, looking smooth-skinned and pensive next to a bespectacled Lennon. There were other pictures, too, from another age, another era: Mr. Kerry leading a troupe of Vietnam veterans to Congress in 1971; Mr. Kerry, hands stuffed in his pockets, after he lost a bid for Congress in 1970; Mr. Kerry with his first wife, Julia Thorne, at their wedding.

“You know, these photos show a side of John Kerry that no one else can show,” the 60-year-old Mr. Butler said, referring to these and some 6,000 other pictures he has taken of the candidate since 1969. He chuckled lightly: “If the Republicans knew where they were, they would probably steal them.”

And not entirely without reason.

Mr. Butler’s photographs are the building blocks of a controversial 90-minute documentary he is directing about the life and times of Candidate Kerry. Based loosely on Douglas Brinkley’s biography, Tour of Duty , the film chronicles Mr. Kerry’s heroics in Vietnam and his subsequent turn as the earnest, fatigues-wearing leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. To help pull the project together for a September release, Mr. Butler-who made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star with his 1977 documentary Pumping Iron -has amassed $1.3 million and a crew of Academy Award–winning editors and big-name producers like Kill Bill’s Lawrence Bender. When the film hits theaters shortly after the Republican National Convention, it could become one of Mr. Kerry’s most potent campaign tools, burnishing his image as a seasoned leader while molding his identity as a loyal family man Americans can trust.

But the film could also backfire on itself, as Republicans begin loading their howitzers for a blistering attack on it. Some critics already have begun blasting it as nothing more than a glorified campaign ad, a sophisticated strategy for side-stepping new campaign-finance laws. Others, meanwhile, have begun preparing for an aggressive assault on Mr. Kerry’s Vietnam record, both during combat and as an anti-war leader. If the film strikes a false note-or even if it hits all the right ones-it could easily become a quagmire for the Kerry campaign.

Mr. Butler stumbled on the idea for the as-yet-untitled documentary during the summer of 2002, when it had become clear that the Massachusetts Senator was considering a run for the White House. He had known Mr. Kerry since 1964, from their days traveling the New England social circuit, and he’d always been intrigued by his story. “I’ve said this before, but John’s got the most interesting life of [any Presidential candidate] since Theodore Roosevelt,” the filmmaker said.

Mr. Butler had just returned home to his gray-walled townhouse after a day in Tribeca filming two of Mr. Kerry’s old boatmates, Del Sandusky and James Wasser. He was dressed in a blue button-down shirt tucked neatly into a pair of jeans, which he accessorized with a pair of metal crutches he was using for a torn leg muscle. He was trim and fine-featured, with a reserved propriety that seemed surprising for a man who made his career by filming Arnold Schwarzenegger pumping iron in a Speedo bikini.

“John Kerry has a fascinating life, but no one knows what’s in it,” he said. “So I just thought I had all of this interesting information about him, and when I talked to a couple of people, a lot of them sort of agreed that it was an interesting idea.”

One of the few people Mr. Butler said he didn’t solicit for advice was the subject himself-although Mr. Kerry cooperated with the film by sitting for interviews. Indeed, Mr. Butler and his producers said they have done everything possible to create a firewall between the film and the campaign, including hiring a Federal Election Commission lawyer to monitor all communications between Mr. Butler, his investors and the Kerry team to avoid any violation of federal campaign-finance law.

“I don’t think I’ve ever discussed the film with John,” said Mr. Butler, adding that he rarely talks to Mr. Kerry these days because of the candidate’s busy schedule.

“The filmmakers are being very careful, for legal reasons,” said one investor, R. Boykin Curry. “Besides, Butler wants to keep his vision; he wants to make a great movie, and if he produces a propaganda piece, it will be bad for his career.”

Nevertheless, there is a clear, and perhaps unavoidable, symbiotic relationship between the campaign and the film. They each figure to benefit the other. Certainly the film would have a diminished audience if Mr. Kerry were not running for President-as became evident last fall when Mr. Kerry’s poor showing in the early polls scared off investors and nearly ended the project.

At the same time, the documentary plays a valuable supporting role for the campaign, a way to shape Mr. Kerry’s image on the eve of the election.

“This is not going to be a commercial,” said William Samuels, one of the film’s executive producers who has been a friend of Mr. Kerry’s since the early 1970′s. “This is going to be a complex picture about a complex man.”

But if the film’s layered portrait of Mr. Kerry could help shape a more intimate, human image, it could also draw unwanted criticism of the Senator by highlighting some of the more controversial episodes of his life. The film’s focus on Mr. Kerry’s anti-war activities-particularly his allegations that U.S. soldiers committed atrocities in Vietnam-could anger more conservative audiences.

Two veterans groups already have gone on the offensive concerning Mr. Kerry’s anti-war activities. The first group, Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry, has accused Mr. Kerry of everything from cheating his way to a Silver Star to aiding the Soviet Union by leading “one of America’s most radical pro-communist groups”-meaning Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The second group of veterans is equally aggressive. Calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group is made up of members of Mr. Kerry’s old unit who have questioned the Senator’s “honesty” about his military record and his “ability to serve” as commander in chief.

“I would say [the film] is going to bear as little relationship to reality as Gladiator does to Roman history,” said John O’Neill, a Texas lawyer who helped found the Swift Boats in early May.

This isn’t the first time Mr. O’Neill has led the charge against Mr. Kerry. During the early 1970′s, the Nixon administration tapped Mr. O’Neill to lead a countercampaign against Mr. Kerry and his fellow Vietnam Veterans Against the War. More than 30 years later, he still speaks of the time he debated Mr. Kerry on The Dick Cavett Show about whether war atrocities had occurred in Vietnam.

Mr. Butler hasn’t forgotten it either, apparently. “John O’Neill was recruited when Dick Nixon tried to attack John [Kerry] in 1971, and he had virtually no effect,” he said, a rare twitch of anger in his voice. “So why would he suddenly become more powerful now?”

“Look, this is going to be a fight,” said Mr. Samuels. “But if the film is intellectually honest, and if it gives us insights into Kerry’s mind and how he makes decisions and what’s his character, then the Bush people are going to have to fight this tooth and nail. And to do that, it’s very important that George Butler makes the film.”

Old Friends

Mr. Butler first met John Kerry in June 1964, a few weeks after the future filmmaker had finished his sophomore year at the University of North Carolina and the future candidate had wrapped his second year at Yale. They were both travelers in the rarefied East Coast world of cocktail parties and country clubs, patrician drawls and white-gloved girlfriends. And while neither young man came from the same kind of affluence that their friends did, they both had enough blue blood running through their veins to mingle comfortably with such pedigreed schoolmates as Richard Pershing, grandson of World War I General John Pershing, and Harvey Bundy, the nephew of McGeorge and William Bundy. It was Mr. Bundy-whom Mr. Butler knew from boarding school and Mr. Kerry from Yale-who introduced the future friends.

“I thought John was going to be President even back then,” said Mr. Butler.

Indeed, it was that oracular premonition that prompted him to begin photographing his war-hero friend after Mr. Kerry returned home from Southeast Asia in 1969. (Mr. Butler himself did not serve in the military.) Mr. Butler became Mr. Kerry’s personal, unofficial paparazzo during those years, turning up, Zelig -like, in all the right places at all the right times, camera in hand. When Mr. Kerry married Julia Thorne in 1970, Mr. Butler was in attendance at the lavish ceremony in Bay Shore, Long Island. (Mr. Kerry and his wife subsequently joined Mr. Butler and his bride, Victoria Leiter, on their honeymoon in Jamaica.) When Mr. Kerry ran for Congress that same year, Mr. Butler chronicled his failed attempt-and ran the campaign. Mr. Kerry wrote his famous testimony for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at Mr. Butler’s in-laws’ place in Washington, D.C. And when he testified the next morning, a bearded Mr. Butler was sitting in the audience one seat behind him. Not long after, when Mr. Kerry threw his war ribbons over a fence in an act of protest, Mr. Butler immortalized the moment by taking a photograph of a weeping Mr. Kerry huddled with his wife, Julia.

Investors like Mr. Samuels think they’ve got a box-office winner on their hands, thanks to Mr. Butler’s long history with Mr. Kerry. But the relationship also invites the questions: How can a good friend be anything but partisan? How can he make an honest, objective film?

Mr. Butler shrugs off such questions with a quick and seemingly well-practiced response. “Arnold was a very close friend when I made Pumping Iron ,” he said, “and all of those people who wrote books about [John] Kennedy-[Arthur] Schlesinger, Ted Sorenson and so forth-were close friends of his who worked in his administration, and those books succeeded. So what’s wrong with it?”

Such Yoda-like calm must have come in handy last fall when, several months into filming and just as Mr. Butler was coming to the end of his first infusion of cash, Mr. Kerry plummeted in the polls. Until then, Mr. Butler’s strategy had been to cobble together a sample reel with that initial lump of funding and then coast to financing nirvana as Mr. Kerry piled up victories in the primaries. “I wouldn’t have started to make this film unless I thought that John had the ability to go all the way,” Mr. Butler said. But as Mr. Kerry’s prospects seemed to fade, so did Mr. Butler’s film, leaving him with a slurry of raw footage that even he, a self-described resourceful guy, couldn’t think of a use for.

“I was in a very difficult position, because I couldn’t raise any more money,” Mr. Butler said. “All I could tell people was that John Kerry’s going to win the primaries, but all people would tell me was, ‘You’re a very stupid man, George.’” And then he won.

Mr. Kerry’s victories in Iowa and New Hampshire pumped new life-and financing-into the film. As Mr. Kerry racked up primary victories, Mr. Butler raised the requisite $1.3 million to fund his movie. Mr. Samuels came on board as an executive producer, as did Vincent Roberti, who runs Palisades Pictures, and together they recruited investors from across the country.

But if raising money has been easier since the primary, the film is hardly a “slam-dunk,” as Mr. Samuels warned investors. The producers are still negotiating with distributors-a precarious process in wake of Disney’s decision to dump Michael Moore’s Fahrenhiet 9/11 -and the Republicans have only begun warming up for their attacks.

Above all, Mr. Butler has to complete the film: He has to shoot roughly 50 more hours of footage (for a total of 100 hours), head to Vietnam for some scene-setting shots, then edit the whole mass of celluloid down to 90 minutes. And all of this in three whirlwind months.

“We’re in a race to get this film finished by Labor Day, so it’s going to be tight,” said Mr. Butler. “It’s going to be a long, hot summer.”