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  An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story

Featuring: Eddie Adams, Bob Schieffer, Peter Jennings, Morley Safer

Directed by: Susan Morgan Cooper

Produced by: Susan Morgan Cooper

Written by: Susan Morgan Cooper

Distributor: Julesworks Releasing, LLC

     There are many fascinating ideas to contemplate in An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story, but the documentary’s public television-like style and sometimes overly-obvious interview selections mar a grander sense of insight. Indeed, filmmaker Susan Morgan Cooper’s late subject was an amazing man—she makes sure to remind the viewer of this repeatedly—but the truly enlightening aspects of his life and his work are depicted patchily here. That’s not to say that An Unlikely Weapon doesn’t bring them to audiences in a roundabout way, just that it often wastes time with material that isn’t nearly as profound.

     Adams is, of course, best known as the war photographer who took the Pulitzer Prize winning shot of the Saigon police chief shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head, right in the middle of a public road. When the film contemplates the impact of this photo on Adams himself, it’s at its best. Using archival interviews of the photographer, director Morgan Cooper lingers on Adams’ unhappiness in the image, which is telling of his roles as a photographer and, in turn, a war reporter. He faults the composition and the lighting, but still recognizes it as a capture of an important moment in time—the exact instant the bullet hit its target, in fact. Educated viewers already know how the photo affected the war in general, so viewing it as a piece of one man’s history is far more valuable. It’s used as the catalyst for a well-constructed background on Adams’ early career and clips in which Adams discusses his broader views of photography’s importance in news. It’s interesting to contemplate how Adams’ remarks apply to a current world, where digital images are now even more abundant and homogenous than violent conflicts.

     But for every understated, brilliant scene that An Unlikely Weapon contains—most of them shot years ago, as Adams died in 2004—it features a rote interview with a talking-head. It often feels like director Cooper included so much footage with the famous newsmen Eddie knew—Tom Brokaw, Bob Schieffer, Morley Safer, and the late Peter Jennings—just to increase the film’s pedigree. These distinguished men provide certain valuable anecdotes and insights, but most of the time they converse about their old friend and co-worker in surprisingly simple terms. The segments are laid-back, but not candid in the way the viewer may hope. There does, however, seem to be a consensus among them that the image is as essential to the power of news as any other form of truth, and this is as strong a testament to Adams’ career as any.

     One also gets the feeling that Morgan Cooper glazes over the rougher aspects of Adams’ personality. While the photographer is depicted as the typical distant artist—eccentric, willing to go to extremes for his craft, and creatively unquenched—there seems to be a darker side looming in the background that the film never fully realizes. This is likely because access to Adams was limited to archival footage and Morgan Cooper wasn’t able to pry as far as she might’ve wanted, but it nonetheless makes An Unlikely Weapon seem somewhat incomplete. In the interviews in the film, Adams speaks a bit about how war affected him on a personal level—he felt so estranged in the U.S. after returning from Vietnam that he chose to go back—but the angle never feels completely developed. This would have been particularly interesting had it been explored in reference to Adams’ later career choices, like the 180s he pulled when photographing for magazines like Parade and Penthouse. Perhaps certain things are more powerful when left unsaid, but not this aspect of the story. Morgan Cooper’s interviews with Adams’ teenage son, for instance, could have gone there, but instead come across as restrained.

     My criticisms notwithstanding, An Unlikely Weapon ultimately provides worthy, if spotty, insight into an important historical figure who had not yet been depicted on celluloid. As a photographer of wars and eventually celebrities, Adams was unquestionably one of the best and, at the very least, this film is an affectionate and worthy tribute to his career. Kiefer Sutherland provides minimalist narration, and Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens reteam to lend a polished score.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 7.10.2009

Screened on: 7.8.2009 on a screener DVD.


An Unlikely Weapon is Not Rated and runs 85 minutes.

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