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

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past


Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Jennifer Garner and Matthew McConaughey only have eyes for Daniel Sunjata.

(New Line) Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert, Robert Forster, Anne Archer, Emma Stone. Directed by Mark Waters

In many ways the era of the confirmed bachelor is well behind us. Men who don’t get married at a certain time in life are regarded with some suspicion, as if they’re missing a requisite character trait that makes them trustworthy. Plus, given the state of 21st century sexuality, with STDs, unplanned pregnancy and so on, men are less inclined to play the field as much as they did even 30 years ago.

Don’t tell Connor Mead (McConaughey) that though. Mentored by his Hugh Hefner wannabe Uncle Wayne (Douglas), Connor refuses to spend more time than absolutely necessary to seduce women which makes his career as a fashion photographer an ideal hunting ground. He has adopted a love ‘em and leave ‘em attitude, hold the love ‘em, and has been known to break up with three women at a time on a conference call.

Uncle Wayne is long gone, passed on to the great piano lounge in the sky, but his estate is going to be used by Connor’s younger brother Paul’s (Meyer) wedding to the highly neurotic Sandra (Chabert) whose ex-Marine dad (Forster) is performing the ceremony. Connor is far more interested in seducing the bride’s wife (Archer) and even more interested in getting plastered and espousing his views on love which are to wit that love is a myth, to be believed in the same way Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are. His mood isn’t helped by the presence of Jenny (Garner), his first girlfriend who parted terms with Connor on less than friendly terms.

A little later on when Connor goes into one of the cavernous bathrooms of the mansion, he runs into the late Uncle Wayne, who advises him that he is going to be visited by three ghosts that evening in order to save him from a life of loneliness and unhappiness. Can these specters save Connor from himself?

Frankly there came a point when I didn’t care. McConaughey has an easy charm which here masks a guy with real problems. I generally like the shirtless Southerner’s performances but here he might have been a little too good at his job – Connor’s misogyny is so pronounced that eventually I lost interest in his salvation.

Still, there are things to recommend the movie, chief among them Michael Douglas. As the Lothario to end all Lotharios, he resembles the legendary womanizing producer Bob Evans with slicked back hair, big glasses and silk cravat, but Douglas plays the role with a hint of a twinkle in his eye. Poor Jennifer Garner has the thankless role as the one McConaughey is “meant” to be with and she manages to make the part less cliché than you might think. Personally I’d get a restraining order.

This is ostensibly a comedy and in fact there are some genuinely funny moments as when Ghost of Girlfriends Past played by Emma Stone in a highly amusing role, announces that Connor is about to see a montage of girlfriends set to the timeless music of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” However, there aren’t enough of those moments to really sustain this movie.

Obviously using Charles Dickens as a touchstone is never a bad idea, but results may vary and quite frankly, this is a disappointment which while it may not necessarily have Dickens spinning in his grave, it might get him to send the Ghost of Screenplays Past to visit the writers of this movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Michael Douglas is having a good deal of fun, and there are some moments that are genuinely funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Connor’s attitudes are so hateful it’s hard to root for him to get the girl. There aren’t enough funny movies to earn a higher rating.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and sexual references. Connor’s attitude towards women might need explaining to the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Affleck was originally attached to the role of Connor back in 2003 when the movie was originally set to be made, but the failure of Gigli and concerns with the budget caused the studio to cancel production one month before they were scheduled to shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Paris, Je t’aime