An Unlikely Weapon -- Film Review

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In Eddie Adams, one of the 20th century�s top photographers, filmmaker Susan Morgan Cooper has a great subject for her film �An Unlikely Weapon.� He is one not just because he took brilliant photographs or was in the thick of life like few people would ever dare, but because he is, simply, a great character. Her documentary does justice to all sides of this complicated contrarian.

Morgan Cooper is self-distributing her film, which opens Friday in New York and will roll out in various markets in coming weeks. Since she scored interviews with some of broadcasting�s top journalists such as Tom Brokow, Bob Schieffer and the late Peter Jennings, the film is a natural for cable TV later on.

Adams photographed 13 wars, six U.S. presidents, a pope and countless celebrities, but what he did best was to take a shot that summed up an event. He had a great eye -- what good photographer doesn�t? -- but what he also had, which few do, is an instinct for the right moment, the right 1/500th of a second to be exact, when that picture would tell a whole story.

That certainly was true for his most famous photograph, one he probably wished he never took. This was the shot he took while he worked for AP at the height of the Vietnam war of Gen. Nygoc Loan, head of the Saigon police, firing a pistol point blank into the head of a Viet Cong prisoner.

It won a Pulitzer Prize, but the general never lived that photo down. �Two lives were destroyed that day,� Adams would say. �That�s not my job.� That photo haunted Adams until the day he died. He didn�t like what he had done to a general who was an American ally.

Yet that photo, along with Nick Ut�s photo of a naked child running down the road after napalm ripped her skin off, helped change the American public�s perception of the war and turned sentiment against what became -- at least until Iraq -- the country�s most unpopular war.

Like last year�s �Visual Acoustics,� director Eric Bricker�s highly engaging look at architectural photographer Julius Shulman, Morgan Cooper focuses entirely on her subject�s professional career. Only in the final minutes do we get a brief interview with Adams� wife and a recalling of his death from ALS in 2004. Otherwise, we see his work through his own accounts, his own lenses and in tributes by friends.

�Eddie was a grunt,� Morley Safer says. �He looked for trouble both on and off the job.� As such, he was accepted by the soldiers he went into combat with. Indeed he probably saw more combat than any soldier and endured the deaths of several colleagues.

Adams was never satisfied: But he came close when he jumped into a 30-foot boat crowded with Vietnamese refugees being towed out to sea when they were denied entrance to Thailand. He took a series of photos that caused the American government to change its policy and allow 250,000 Vietnamese boat people to immigrate into the U.S.

When he burned out on war, he went into a studio to photograph movie stars, fashion models and presidents. His shot of Clint Eastwood became the campaign poster for �Unforgiven.� He snapped Arnold Schwazenegger in a pool with a tiny yellow rubber duck; he shot a few Penthouse centerfolds too.

Morgan Cooper was lucky to come across footage, shot years before, that catch Adams in full vigor, as he strides through the streets of Manhattan in his black fedora and dark clothes. In this and in an interview conducted by Hal Buell, Adams remarks on his profession and his career in his typically salty language.

�I�m not a good guy,� he says more than once, presumably since he often caught a person at the moment of death.

Eddie Adams is the spitting image of how most journalists would like to see themselves: gruff, profane, kind of handsome and with a tough exterior to hide any sympathy for the underdog.

Kiefer Sutherland provides the thoughtful though unobtrusive narration to Morgan Cooper�s warm film.

Opens: Friday, April 10 (New York)
Production: Morgan Cooper Prods
Director: Susan Morgan Cooper
Screenwriters: Isaac Hagy, Susan Morgan Cooper
Producers: Cindy Lou Adkins, Susan Morgan Cooper
Director of photography/editor: Isaac Hagy
Music: Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens
No rating, 85 minutes