Terrible Beauty

Out of the Flames: Photojournalist James Nachtwey shooting in Ramallah, in the West Bank, in War Photographer.Photo: courtesy of Film Forum

James Nachtwey, the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary War Photographer (at Film Forum) by the Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei, doesn’t look the part. Instead of the cynical, chain-smoking buccaneers we’re accustomed to from fiction films like Under Fire, Nachtwey, in his mid-fifties and lanky, with a full shock of hair, has a cool, almost Zen-like deliberateness. He speaks slowly and carefully, as if he had long ago weighed his words, one by one, and was only now offering us their gravity. He has been photographing the globe’s worst hot spots for 25 years and has probably seen up close more grief and ruination than anybody should have to see in a dozen lifetimes, and yet he still believes he’s making a difference. He regards his photographs as an antidote to war, and himself as an antiwar photographer.

Working mostly for magazines in New York, where he is based, Nachtwey worries, rightly, that publishers are increasingly hesitant to run photos of famine victims and war atrocities that might disturb readers or, more important, advertisers. He worries, too, that he is benefiting from other people’s tragedies. “It is something I have to reckon with every day,” he says, “because I know if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition, I will have sold my soul.” All this may sound saintly and self-serving, and indeed at times War Photographer, which is larded with testimonials to Nachtwey by such colleagues as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, has the aura of an infomercial for the man. And yet Nachtwey is a great photojournalist and a genuine hero. Just because we’ve become overexposed to hype and blather is no excuse for not recognizing the real thing when we see it.

Frei, who followed Nachtwey around for two years, attached a miniature video camera to the photographer’s film camera; we seem to be an extension of Nachtwey’s eyes and ears. We can hear him breathe, we see the same ongoing blur that he sees. Then the moment is frozen, and we view his photograph in the instant he captures it. The disparity between the fluid video imagery and the stark stills is an object lesson in the different ways in which movies and photography affect us. When we observe, in the video imagery, the wailing of women in Kosovo, or a family of beggars living beside the railroad tracks in Jakarta, it’s easy to fall into a generalized despair about what we are witnessing; it’s easy to blank out. The photos that arise from this rush are something else again. They carry the force of an indictment, and they seem to fix for all time the suffering that we see.

Nachtwey doesn’t appear to be an aesthete, and he’s uninterested in talking about how he does what he does. And yet his valorous, aggrieved feelings for what he shoots come through in his technique. His artistry and his social commitment are inextricable (which is not always the case with crusaders). He moves into his theaters of war and devastation not only as an observer but also as a participant; we are told of an Indonesian man who is clubbed and tortured – we see the photos – and how Nachtwey placed himself in harm’s way and prayed on his hands and knees, unsuccessfully, for the man’s life. In Jakarta, in his knee-high rubber boots, he sloshes through the same miasma of garbage that the indigent children wade through – in their rubber sandals, Nachtwey points out. (His haunting images of ground zero postdate this film.)

What’s remarkable is how often the photographer’s subjects allow themselves to be caught on film; it’s as if they understood implicitly that Nachtwey was there not only to agitate for reform but to memorialize their agony. He does both. His thoughts about how photography has the power to abolish war may provoke our sweet condescension, but how can you condescend to a man who has seen all that he has and still feels this way? Nachtwey clears the cynicism right out of you. He makes you realize that deep inside righteousness can be found a tough beauty.

On the other hand, righteousness can yield gunk, as in the new Adam Sandler vehicle, Mr. Deeds, which is so loosely based on Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town that I’ll spare you the comparative analysis. Longfellow Deeds is a happy-as-a-clam pizza-parlor owner from New Hampshire who recites his own sweetly goofy greeting-card poetry to his quaint, adoring townsfolk; he is also, as it turns out, the long-lost relative of a media magnate who has willed him a $40 billion inheritance.

So Deeds makes his first-ever trip to big, bad New York to settle up, and, unfazed, ultimately wins over the city’s tough-talking boors and creeps and snobs. Winona Ryder plays a reporter for a schlock TV show who tricks Deeds into giving her scurrilous scoops and then realizes not only that she loves him but also that she’d rather be working for 60 Minutes. Like that other Capra-corny movie of recent vintage, The Majestic, starring Jim Carrey, Mr. Deeds is all about how little people are really big people. And the little-big people all seem to live in the small towns. Hollywood movies are once again taking on the job that Andy Griffith–era TV sitcoms used to fill, touting homespun values in Never Land. As proof of his innate worth, Deeds doesn’t even care about money, which is more than can be said for the people who made this movie, who cram so many product placements into the action that you feel like there should be an 800 number at the bottom of the screen. Not that you’d want to order anything that’s on view here.

The Bourne Identity, adapted from the Robert Ludlum best-seller and directed by Doug Liman, stars Matt Damon as CIA spy-assassin Jason Bourne, who starts out the film as an amnesiac with a satchel of fake passports. He does a bit of Spider-Man-style building climbing, eludes police by racing a tiny red Austin Mini Cooper through the streets of Paris, punishes his attackers with Filipino martial arts, and in general avoids being “cleaned up” by his own bosses. All this is diverting but also borderline dull: Bourne may have amnesia, but we’ve seen a lot of it before… . John Sayles’s Sunshine State is a pokey intergenerational drama about two racially divided communities on Plantation Island in modern-day Florida. The usual Sayles mix of torpor and talent prevails here. Best in the cast are Edie Falco, playing the itchy, dissatisfied owner of a motel and coffee shop, and Mary Steenburgen, as a civic booster whose smile collapses every time she’s not making nice.

War Photographer
Documentary directed by Christian Frei.
Mr. Deeds
Starring Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder.

Terrible Beauty