An Unlikely Weapon

You probably don't know photographer Eddie Adams, though you know his work. His most famous picture is the one of South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan blowing out the brains of captive Vietcong Nguyen Van Lem on the third day of the Tet Offensive. That picture won Adams a Pulitzer and nearly ruined his life.

Adams photographed 13 wars. When he got sick of the fighting, he'd return to the United States and take friendly pictures: an image of Louis Armstrong at 71, alone in a dressing room, eyeing the trumpet on his lap with a mixture of love, resentment, and total exhaustion; shots of the Clintons goofing off and apparently smitten with each other; cutesy pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a pool with a rubber ducky.

He was weird to the point of iconoclasm. It was hard to pin down his political philosophy, and his aesthetic philosophy, if he had one, was forever in shift. Though he is the only subject of these documentaries whose work is not explicitly bound up in politics, in life-and-death decisions, he's also the only person who behaves as though something depends on his actions.

So the tone of Susan Morgan's An Unlikely Weapon is markedly different from that of the day's other films. You don't watch to see what outrageous thing its subject will do next; you watch because it's a pleasure watching Adams make sense of his world. He loathed watching people die in Vietnam; he also loathed how poorly people treated Gen. Ngoc Loan when he relocated to the United States to open a restaurant. Occasionally, Adams would become overwhelmed by the awfulness of the world and would feel compelled to do some dangerous work once more, like joining a floating city of Vietnamese "boat people," stateless refugees, when it was unclear if any of them would make it onto land alive. (They did, and Adams' pictures helped convince Jimmy Carter to grant the amnesty to hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees.)

In the last decade of his life, Adams spent much of his time trying to teach his craft at the Eddie Adams Barnstorm workshop. It's a simple thing, one that plenty of ordinary people would do if they had risen to the top of a profession they loved. Still, after a day of watching men behave like politicians, it is liberating to see one who knew how to be a citizen.

Director Susan Morgan Cooper discusses An Unlikely Weapon.

 
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