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Review: An Unlikely Weapon

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The image in question: Saigon Execution, by Eddie Adams.

Most of the iconic images we see - the ones that define an era or change a social tide - come without much of a footnote at all. Unless it’s in your nature or your profession, there’s a good chance that Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz are about as deep as you’re willing to wade into the photo pool. But there’s also a good chance that all those other photographs you don’t have a name to put with, those real images from war or those celebrities or presidents out of their element and yet so comfortable...there’s a good chance Eddie Adams did those.

Or at least that’s what recent documentary An Unlikely Weapon would have you believe. And, truthfully, it’s not much of a stretch. Like stumbling on a Grand Unifying Theory or discovering that actor who’s been in EVERYTHING, it’s sort of eerie to discover the iconic images that Adams really did have his hands in. There’s the shot of Mother Teresa holding an infant, or the iconic Clint Eastwood with his back turned, pistol held quietly in hand. But there are other, darker images that Adams was inside or around the lens for; images that have spanned generations, shaped foreign policy, and haunted one man for his entire life.

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For those of you who don’t already know the ultimate Eddie Adams truth (or decided against looking at the header photograph to this post) I’ll save you the suspense: he is the man behind the 1968 Vietnam photograph of a standing, bound prisoner at the moment of execution. His is the photograph that showed to America and the rest of the world the gritty details of what was really happening in Saigon and elsewhere. One image, of a snub-nosed pistol aimed left to right towards its target, a man at the absolute moment of death as his face recoils but he has yet to slump. It is black and white, it is important, and it is horrifying. You need to see it, you just maybe don’t want to have to be the one who took it.

An Unlikely Weapon revolves around the latter part of the equation, as the life work of Eddie Adams is laid out on film almost as an apology to the world: look what else this man has done, please give him the ability to let one snapshot go. But, as the documentary progresses and you begin to build a larger rapport with the elderly felt-hatted man on screen, you begin to recognize this as being absolutely impossible. Despite his other very impressive works, his commitment to the craft of photography and his willingness to promote it to future generations, and his almost mythic stature as a war photographer, Eddie Adams will forever be the man behind the moment.

An Unlikely Weapon is a very open look at one man’s struggle to become more than the singular greatest (and painful and unintended) thing he has ever done, and the ultimate struggle to live with a legacy you cannot undo. The narration, by Kiefer Sutherland, is sparse and only interjects when beautiful images or Adams himself cannot complete the picture. For the most part, the film takes a very pleasing arc, with an almost B.P. (before photograph) and A.P. (after photograph) approach; and this is smart, because the honesty from Adams and all of his colleagues about what sort of man existed before that photograph and afterwards shows a contrast that is undeniably poignant. If An Unlikely Weapon ever seems slow, it probably boils down to two reasons: the path to the film itself, the time spent and the struggle lived, has been slow and bubbling for decades, so it only makes sense that the film would carry some of that agony inside itself. And maybe, like every time you see a traveling Van Gogh exhibit, there’s simply too much beauty and complexity in all of the images to be taken in at once. Maybe you, as the viewer, just need more time. But for Eddie Adams, 1/500th of a second to get a single shot was all the time it would take to change his life forever.


An Unlikely Weapon opens on July 10th Laemmle's Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd.