On February 1, 1968, Eddie Adams, an Associated Press photographer who had been covering the war in Vietnam for years, clicked the shutter on his 35-millimeter camera during the chaos of the Tet Offensive on the streets of Saigon. In one-five-hundredths of a second Adams, a 35-year-old former Marine, made history.
His photograph of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of the South Vietnamese national police, summarily executing a Viet Cong suspect with a bullet to the head became one of a handful of photographs of the 20th century that, many believe, changed history.
“When I saw the picture, I was not impressed, and I’m still not impressed,” Adams, who died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease at age 71 in 2004, says in the excellent new documentary An Unlikely Weapon: The Eddie Adams Story. “It was just a news picture. I still don’t understand why it was so important.”
The film is opening at the Starz Theatre in Denver on July 3, followed the next week by a run at the Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills and the Regency South Coast Village in Santa Ana, Calif. The film will also be in theaters in July in Chicago and Palm Springs, and goes nationwide later this summer. For a list of openings, go to the doc’s web site
Adams, an iconoclast who never failed to speak his mind, goes on in the documentary to say how the light was all wrong in the photo and how the composition was not up to his standards. While that may have been true, that image could not have been more impressive if you measure its impact on the future of the American war in Vietnam.
The startling photo, which won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography in 1969, “brought home the brutality of the war” to the American people in a new and disturbing way, as former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw puts it in the movie. The reaction to the photo also was an important factor in the Johnson administration’s decision to put the brakes on the war effort and begin disengaging the United States from the war that Johnson had greatly escalated four years earlier.
As The New York Times noted in Adams’ obituary: “Although there was little doubt that the captive [in Adam’s photo] was indeed a Vietcong infiltrator, his seemingly impromptu execution shocked millions around the world when the photograph was first published and it galvanized a growing antiwar sentiment in the United States.” The photo, The Times added, “reinforced a widespread belief that the South Vietnamese and American military were doing more harm than good in trying to win the war against an indigenous insurgency and the North Vietnamese army that sponsored it.”
That’s not how Adams saw it, however. “Two people’s lives were destroyed that day,” he tells cinematographer Isaac Hagy’s camera in the documentary—the VC suspect, that is, along with General Loan because he was all but branded a war criminal by the court of public opinion for the rest of his days.
Eddie Adams “was never proud of the picture,” his son August says in the documentary. “It haunted him for the rest of his life.”
Not that Eddie Adams stayed home and brooded about the picture. He regretted the firestorm of vitriol that came down on Gen. Loan, who, Adams said, told him afterward that he killed the man because the VC “killed many of my men and your people.” Eddie Adams, who was a Marine combat photographer in the Korean War, went on to become one of the world’s top photojournalists. He specialized in two very different things: portraits of the rich and famous and on-the-spot combat photographs.
During his 45-year career, as the film (produced and directed by Susan Morgan Cooper, co-produced by Cindy Lou Adkins and edited by Hagy) shows, Adams covered thirteen wars and won hundreds of photojournalism awards while working for AP, Time, and Parade. Adams also set up a state-of-the art photography studio in New York City where he did his celebrity portraits. He shot covers for Life, Time, Penthouse and Parade, including brilliant images of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul, Bette Davis, Anwar Sadat, and Louis Armstrong.
In 1977, Adams was so moved by the plight of the thousands of Vietnamese who were fleeing their country by boat that he managed to get on board an overcrowded, thirty-foot vessel, bringing with him bags of rice and a large supply of gasoline. He stayed on board, taking a series of evocative photos, many of them of children. Those images were instrumental in Congress passing legislation allowing those “boat people” into the United States. “It was the only good thing I did in my life,” Adams says in his singularly blunt way, “but I’m not a good guy.”
The filmmakers made effective use of extensive interviews with Adams, many of his images, footage from the Vietnam War, and comments from his colleagues, many of who were Vietnam War photographers or correspondents. That list includes big network broadcasters Tom Brokaw, Morley Safer, the late Peter Jennings, and Bob Schieffer; photojournalists David Hume Kennerly, Nick Ut, and Gordon Parks; former Vietnam War newspaper correspondents Peter Arnett, George Esper, and Bill Eppridge; as well as Walter Anderson, the Vietnam veteran and former editor of Parade magazine.
Nick Ut offers his thoughts on Adams’ work, as well as on the Vietnam War picture that Ut took that also became an iconic image of the war: the June 8, 1972, photograph of a young, naked Vietnamese girl fleeing her napalmed village. The girl in the picture, Kim Phuc, also offers her thoughts on the impact of the famed photos of the war.
The documentary, narrated by the actor Keifer Sutherland, lives up to its title, providing a full picture of Eddie Adams’ life and work. That includes the annual four-day free workshops he began in 1988 in upstate New York for aspiring photojournalists. The film offers more, though—a look at the life and work of photographers in general who covered the Vietnam War.