Movie Review: An Unlikely Weapon


4-01-09, 9:11 am

An Unlikely Weapon The Eddie Adams Story Narrated by Kiefer Sutherland Directed by: Susan Morgan Cooper Produced by: Susan Morgan Cooper and Cindy Lou Adkins

The biographical facts about the life of Eddie Adams are clear. He photographed 13 wars and six US presidents, and almost every other culturally and historically important person. He had a hell of a career. He lived to be 71-years old, dying prematurely to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Director Susan Morgan Cooper has put together an important 85-minute biopic documenting Adams' work and life that is a must-see for all working photographers, students of the trade and everyone else interested in the history of our country. Cooper utilized the goodwill and friendship that many TV celebrities and other media personalities had with Adams to appear in the film.

It is understandable that Cooper focused on Adams’ most famous photo: the assassination of Nguyen Van Lam by South Vietnamese Army Colonel Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan. It takes a “hook” to get the interest of producers and distributors. But, quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised that the 85 minutes was filled up with a biography of a photographer who documented many parts of our society and world.

Adams took the photo that brought the Viet Nam war home to the United States. These days the word would be, transformative. The photo of a top police officer of Saigon executing, without any trial, another Vietnamese man, presumed to be Vietnamese Communist. The war didn’t end for another seven, long devastating years, but that photo played a huge role in exposing the brutality of the war and this countries 'allies' in it.

Later in the film, Cooper and Adams track down General Loan after he left Vietnam and became a manager of a pizza shop in Virginia.

Adams photo was one of two extraordinarily impactful images from that war. One of Adams’ best photographer friends, Nick Ut, took the other infamous photo. That photo was of a Vietnamese child, Kim Phuc, running naked after being napalmed. That photo was also seen around the world. Phuc is now grownup and actually appears and talks about her experiences in this remarkable film. She left Vietnam in the 1990s and now lives in Canada. Over the years she had many medical procedures to repair her severely burned skin.

For this reviewer, Adams’ Viet Nam photos brought back that war as if it just happened. That is the special role of photography. Adams then reported how renowned filmmaker Michael Cimino took a copy of his now infamous photo, folding it, and placing it in his back pocket. He kept it there for a full year. He used that photo as the centerpiece of his film “The Deer Hunter.” In a highly dramatic scene, Christopher Walken plays “Russian Roulette” in a disturbing parallel to that photo. That scene, Adams said, still haunted him long after; it was the only film about that war and its aftermath Adams said he ever saw.

Those two photos created a backdrop for Viet Nam war. It was these and the other tens of thousands of photographs that helped fuel antiwar demonstrations. The tens of thousands of demonstrators who grew to oppose and then end the war were cleared aided by direct photographic proof of the US's genocidal actions. In fact, it was that direct experience of allowing photographers to have free access to the battlegrounds that the Bush/Cheney banned such access in Iraq.

After Viet Nam and heading into the next part of his photographic life, Cooper brought us up close and personal with Adams’ son and wife. His “commercial” photography with Parade Magazine, Penthouse Magazine (Before it became raunchy, Adams said) and just simple portraits were fully part of his life and the film. His establishment of the Bathhouse Studios on East 11th Street in Lower Manhattan is duly noted.

Adams is often portrayed as very cynical, rather negative person, almost a curmudgeon. Cooper digs deeper and finds another person. She portrays a completely different person. Adams became concerned about the next generation of photographers. But, like his whole life, he didn’t think about it, he did something about it.

He bought an upstate New York farm and barn house complex and started conducting classes for working and aspiring photographers. Gordon Parks was one teacher at that educational site. Then, to make sure no one forgot photographers who did not make it out of Viet Nam, Adams established a monument to five photographer friends who were killed in a helicopter crash. Each year a special event was held honoring their short lives.

The narrations from Peter Jennings, fortunately done before he died, Bob Schieffer, Morley Safer, and Tom Brokaw were each clearly not formatted responses to a well know photographer with whom they worked. These were comments from colleagues who genuinely respected Adams the person and his work.

The narration by Keifer Sutherland and music by Kyle Eastwood were perfect for the project.