Underfire: The Untold Story of PFC Tony Vaccaro


Sleepers in unquiet graves.

Sleepers in unquiet graves.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Tony Vaccaro, James Estrin, Tyler Hicks, Alex Kershaw, Michel Lepourty, Anne Wilkes Tucker, John G. Morris, Sam Tannenbaum, Mike Forster, Lynsey Addario. Directed by Max Lewkowicz

 

Soldiers are a special sort of breed, one to be admired immensely. Not only are they willing to lay down their lives for their country but they often return home damaged – particularly during times of war. They are forced to do things that go against everything they are taught (i.e. Thou Shalt Not Kill) and they see things – horrible things – that reflect humanity at its absolute worst.

Tony Vaccaro was barely out of high school when he was drafted to serve as an infantryman in the Second World War. Orphaned at a young age in Italy, he left that country and moved to New Rochelle, NY when the Fascists took over. While in high school, he developed an interest in photography and when he was drafted, applied to the Army Signal Corps to take photographs for them. He was turned down, told that he was too young for the Signal Corps. “I’m too young to take pictures,” he reflects in the documentary about his 272 days in the service of his country during which he took more than eight thousand photographs, “But not too young to kill.”

He took pictures of weary servicemen, resting for a moment after marching or fighting. He took pictures of men being shredded by shrapnel. He took pictures of burned tanks, the burned driver on the ground beside it. He took pictures of shell-shocked civilians and grateful French children kissing G.I.s. Many of his pictures come with incredible stories.

At one point he finds a soldier frozen in the snow. Curious as to whom the victim was, he is horrified to discover it is Henry Tannenbaum, a childhood friend. Years later, Tannenbaum’s son Sam saw the picture of his father at an exhibition of Vaccaro’s work and called up the photographer. When Tony found out who was on the other end of the line, he wept but for Tannenbaum, the picture gave him some closure and made his father, whom he had no memory of, more real to him. The two men became friends and visited the site where Tony found Henry’s body. Ironically, the place is now a Christmas tree farm (Tannenbaum is Christmas Tree in German).

One of the hardest photographs he ever took was that of a German woman, who had been raped and murdered by Allied troops after she’d been found with a bazooka, and then stabbed in her vagina with a bayonet. At first Tony was horrified and he removed the blade and covered the dead woman up. However, he went back and put her back the way she was when he found her and snapped the picture before then covering up the body and removing the blade once again. He had set out to document his experiences and he felt it wouldn’t be true to his mission if he didn’t document that as well, but he remarked it would be the most difficult of all the pictures he’d shot, including that of Tannenbaum.

In an era where photographs were routinely staged, Vaccaro’s pictures stand out because they were real. While sometimes soldiers would refuse to have their pictures taken by outside photographers, Tony was trusted. He was one of them, a brother. They would pose for him sure but they also allowed him to turn his cameras on them when they were fighting for their lives and the lives of their brothers. No other photographer in any war, before or since, has gotten as close to the soldiers fighting it as Vaccaro did. The incredible pictures he took reflect that. War is undoubtedly hell, the kind of hell that only those who have been to the front lines of war can understand. The photographs of Tony Vaccaro help those who have never been to war to gain at least a little bit of understanding.

Vaccaro is front and center here and he reminisces about some of the things he took pictures at from the places he took them in 70 years later. We see him on the beach at Normandy where he was part of the Allied invasion on Omaha Beach; the quaint French village which was largely untouched by the fighting; the woods where a horrific battle was fought. His memory is incredibly clear for a 94-year-old man.

His interviews are augmented by commentary by contemporary combat photographers who are singularly admiring of the job Vaccaro did, often going from firing his M-1 rifle to grabbing his camera and snapping pictures. In one incredible moment entitled “The Last Step of John Rose” an infantryman throws both hands in the air as a mortar explodes behind him. Shrapnel is already lancing through his body and with his next step he will crumple to the ground. “Suddenly, life comes to an end and gravity takes you,” Vaccaro reflects. “Giving up life, we all go down to earth again. All of us.”

After the war, Vaccaro stayed in Europe, unable to return home. He was caught in the grip of what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although they didn’t discuss such things then. He put his negatives in storage and left them there until recently; even though he had documented his experiences, he was not disposed to sharing them although eventually he did. He would eventually continue following his passion for photography, becoming a fashion and celebrity photographer for Life magazine and others.

But despite a lifetime photographing beautiful things and beautiful people, he remains close to the pictures that haunted him from the time he took them until now. “There is beauty in tragedy,” one of the commentators intones and there is truth in that. The picture of a frozen soldier in the snow is awful to contemplate but has a certain serene beauty to it that is hard to ignore. So is this documentary, which is worth looking into.

REASONS TO GO: The photographs are absolutely extraordinary. Vaccaro is still emotional about his time on the front lines and that emotion only enhances the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to death and mayhem may find the photographs too disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity some gruesome images of war and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The Argus C3 35mm camera that Vaccaro used throughout the war cost him $47.50 as a used (or secondhand) camera back in 1942.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fury
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Collateral Beauty

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Edge of Tomorrow


Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

Tom Cruise sees the initial box office numbers.

(2014) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Jonas Armstrong, Tony Way, Kick Gurry, Franz Drameh, Dragomir Mrsic, Charlotte Riley, Masayoshi Haneda, Noah Taylor, Terence Maynard, Lara Pulver, Madeline Mantock, Assly Zandry, Martin Hyder, Mairead McKinley, Andrew Neil, Beth Goddard, Anna Botting. Directed by Doug Liman

What a difference a day makes. Sometimes, a single day can make all the difference.

Major William Cage (Cruise) is one of those slick PR types that the army employs to sell war. This war, however, is unlike any other war we’ve ever fought; a mysterious race of aliens has invaded and quickly taken over Europe and Asia. The Mimics, as we call them, have withstood the might of our combined armies and now are poised to cross the ocean and take on the Americas. Much like another war half a century ago, the Americans know that they need to stop them in Europe or else have them hit us at full strength.

Cage is meeting up with Irish General Brigham (Gleeson) of the United Defense Force but the meeting doesn’t go well and the exasperated General orders Cage to the front. Cage balks at it and tries to BS his way out of it but ends up being tasered and sent to the front lines anyway. There, he meets up with MSgt Farrell (Paxton), a gung ho Kentuckian and the somewhat sullen J Company as they are put on massive troop transport helicopters and ferried over to Normandy. Unlike the previous invasion of that beach, the Mimics are expecting them and the invasion is disastrous. Cage is killed in the first five minutes.

Except he wakes up, on exactly the same day – right after he was tasered. And things unfold exactly the same. And he wakes up again. This time, however, he does things a little differently – and he survives longer, getting to meet Rita, the so-called Angel of Verdun who just about single-handedly won the only victory the UDF has had. Rita immediately realizes what’s going on and brings him to see Dr. Carter (Taylor) who knows more about the Mimics than just about anybody alive.

Just before he died, Cage had met up with a super-rare Mimic Alpha, and killed the damn thing, getting its blood all over him. That had somehow given Cage the same power the Mimics have or rather their Omega creature – the ability to re-set time. That’s why the Mimics are unstoppable; they know what humans are up to because they see it before resetting time, then react accordingly during the replay. However, now, it is us that has the advantage and if we can find the Omega and destroy it, the war will be ours. However, Cage has to figure a way to get off that beach.

Based on a Japanese manga called All You Need a Kill (a much better title although Da Queen prefers the ad tag line – “Live. Die. Repeat.” as a movie title better), astute moviegoers will recognize the plot conceit as being the same as Groundhog Day. However, the similarities are merely superficial. Whereas the older movie was a comedy in which Bill Murray wanted to get the girl, here Tom Cruise is out to save the world. And get the girl.

Liman, one of the most underrated and outstanding action directors out there (he made The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith among others), continues his fine work with the battle sequence here that recalls that of Saving Private Ryan only it isn’t nearly as intense or chaotic. The parallels between this war with the Mimics and the Second World War are heavy-handed indeed.

Cruise remains as bankable a movie star as there is out there although this is quite a different role for him, at least initially. Cage is a bit of a con artist, shucking and jiving his way through the army and willing to do anything to keep from going into actual battle. He’s a bit of a coward and a whole lot of arrogant, the kind of political survivor that always manages to land on his feet – until the aliens put him face-down. Eventually he grows a pair and becomes the hero we’re used to, but it is a slow process.

Blunt is also playing against type. Generally she plays a spunky but somewhat emotionally fragile sort but here she is all business and a credible action hero of her own. In the manga her character is sometimes known as The Bitch of War and that’s not far from the truth; she’s hard, merciless and without fear. She knows we’re losing this war and only one thing will prevent it – and her opportunity had slipped right through her fingers.

This isn’t a space opera – we never get a sense of how the aliens arrived here and what they want. The somewhat insectoid Mimics have lots of tentacles that owe something to the creature Giger created in Alien and they are terrifying. Kudos to the creature design team who also came up with the Alpha and Omega creatures as well. We’ve seen some decent alien designs in recent years although alien invasion movies have tended to be very poor as of late.

This is a little bit more thoughtful than most Hollywood summer blockbusters and that isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Yeah, sometimes all I really need is a loud movie with absolutely no thoughts in it at all, but this isn’t that. You are left to ponder the significance of each and every day with an eye towards learning how to use that pattern to your own advantage. I found it to be on par with the better-reviewed films of this summer and while the box office hasn’t been scintillating thus far for the movie, it is on course to at least make its production budget back and then some and in a crowded summer of stronger quality films than we’ve seen in recent years, we have to appreciate all the movies that aren’t just formulaic and either lacking in creativity, over-relying on CGI or pandering to its audience. Edge of Tomorrow does none of that.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining. Cruise plays against type.

REASONS TO STAY: Borrows a little from Starship Troopers, Battle: Los Angeles and Groundhog Day.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of sci-fi war violence, a fair amount of salty language and some sexually suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The failed invasion is depicted as taking place in Normandy. In the United States, the film’s official release date was June 6, 2014 – the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle: Los Angeles

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Trip to Italy