Movie review, 'War Photographer'

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James Nachtwey, the professional magazine photographer whose work and life are the subjects of Christian Frei's documentary "War Photographer," is an extraordinary man who here receives an often extraordinary tribute.

Nachtwey, who shoots photos and photo essays for Time magazine, Geo Saison, Stern and other journals, is the most awarded and admired war photographer of our time, acknowledged by his critics and colleagues as the finest and bravest among them. Covering every major war since 1981, Nachtwey -- continually putting himself in harm's way in the thick of battle to bring back images of horror and catastrophe -- has made himself the contemporary equivalent of a Robert Capa. (And indeed, Nachtwey has won the Robert Capa Gold Medal, named for the late combat photographer, five times.)

Frei, a Swiss TV documentarian, captures his subject -- a shy, elusive, silver-haired 53-year-old New Englander -- with some of the unadorned eloquence of Nachtwey's own best work. Frei records comments and tributes from Nachtwey's employers, colleagues and friends. He lets Nachtwey speak for himself, simply, pointedly, soberly and unsmilingly.

Most memorably, Frei shows Nachtwey's photographs: searing portraits of soldiers and civilians in battle, classically framed, often black and white. And he shows Nachtwey in action, often through the use of a tiny portable microcam, carried by Nachtwey and catching images just above his own camera-eye angle.

The results are scary and disturbing.

Like all good combat photographers, Nachtwey constantly runs the risk of being killed in action, and this movie exhaustively shows him at work and in peril. Frei also convincingly shows the paradox of Nachtwey's metier: as a chronicler of war who views his work as a continuous antiwar statement. Nachtwey is a product of the '60s anti-Vietnam War protest years (a Dartmouth art history and political science student from 1966-1970), and he was inspired by the Vietnam battle photography of that time.

Finally, the film answers a question that obviously haunts Nachtwey: Is it immoral, callous or irresponsible to win fame and recognition from images of the terror, death and suffering of others? Nachtwey's colleagues are there to testify to his own personal courage and compassion under fire. But more than that, we see, over and over, how important it is to have witnesses like him and his fellows in the wars of our time.

If we blind ourselves to the chaos and tragedy that war inevitably brings, we run the risk of propagating its myths and endlessly repeating its mistakes. Watching "War Photographer," you come to believe that Nachtwey hates the wars he shows and empathizes with the victims he reveals. That's what makes him such a valuable witness -- and what makes Frei's film such disturbing and often damning testimony.

3 stars (out of 4)
"War Photographer"
Directed, produced and edited by Christian Frei; photographs by James Nachtwey; digital betacam cinematography by Peter Indergand; microcam cinematography by Nachtwey; music by Eleni Karaindrou, Arvo Part, David Darling. A First Run/Icarus Films release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; 773-871-6604. Also screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 1967 S. Campus Drive, Northwestern University, Evanston; 847-866-0312. (In English and German; English subtitled.) Running time: 1:36. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned: images of extreme violence and suffering).

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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