Soldier Tony Vaccaro captured World War II images like no one else
by Sharon Dierberger
How could you ever lose the mental image of a Nazi tumbling from his tank, burning to death next to you? Or an American soldier kissing a little French girl’s cheek as joyous young women dance, celebrating victory in Europe?
Tony Vaccaro will never forget. And because of his remarkable photos as an American infantryman and photographer in Europe, neither will the rest of the world. Underfire: The Untold Story of Pfc. Tony Vaccaro opens a shutter into horrific, mundane, and jubilant moments of World War II as seen through his lens in Normandy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.
Orphaned at age 5 and raised by an abusive uncle, Vaccaro developed a love for photography in high school. A draftee in 1943, he hoped to be an Army photographer but was too young. Old enough to shoot guns but not photos, Vaccaro decided he would show the Army: “I can do better than all the Signal Corps photographers put together.”
With a rifle in one hand and a $47 Argus C3 55 mm camera in the other, he headed to Europe with the 83rd Infantry Division.
His camera was small, lightweight, and needed no setup, so he could react quickly and unobtrusively, capturing moments other photographers missed. He was one of the few photographers who also fought, so fellow soldiers trusted him with unfettered access to their lives—and sometimes deaths.
His images are spontaneous and exude emotion, each telling a story that leaves viewers wanting to know more. That’s artistry. One rare photo shows the exact moment shrapnel kills a soldier. Another silently elaborates on an infantryman’s life through his pocket’s family photos strewn around his corpse.
A heart-rending photo of a soldier frozen in snow eventually leads that soldier’s son, who sees it years later, to contact Vaccaro to learn more about the dad he never knew.
Vaccaro snapped over 8,000 war photos. Not all are gruesome. Many highlight ordinary moments. Others show exuberance after the Allies declare liberation from the Nazis.
In Underfire, the elderly Vaccaro narrates as he revisits sites where he fought and filmed. The juxtaposition of today’s peaceful scenes against his war photos and stories is moving. Other well-known photojournalists add insights.
Though it originally aired on HBO in 2016, the film is apropos now in commemoration of this year’s 75th anniversary of World War II’s end. It is engrossing—sometimes disturbing—and available to rent or purchase. It does depict war violence and includes one quick image of a nude woman.
Not only did Vaccaro survive the war, but in May, at age 97, he recovered from COVID-19.
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Samuel Goldwyn Films
Telling the truth
Mr. Jones highlights the human cost of bearing false witness
by Megan Basham
“This is a chance to rebuild, to fight for the future,” a pretty, young Moscow reporter tells British freelancer Gareth Jones midway through the excellent 2019 film Mr. Jones. She’s convinced the Soviets are fighting for “the real people, the workers.” She tells herself that burying information on Stalin means restraining Hitler. She believes she’s a crusader on the right side of history, a moderating force for good.
So she declines to follow a few leads, neglects to question some narratives that might undermine the cause. She is one kind of corrupt journalist Jones, played by James Norton, encounters in his efforts to uncover the truth about how Stalin is financing his brave, new industrialized nation in 1933. And her idealism contributes to millions of deaths from state-orchestrated starvation.
The other kind of journalist Jones meets in the Soviet Union is even less principled, and to this day holds a Pulitzer Prize for the lies he told in the pages of The New York Times.
Brilliantly played by a greasy, snake-eyed Peter Sarsgaard, Walter Duranty is circumspect about the dictator. He knows what Stalin is, but acting as the Times’ man in Moscow affords him wealth, international fame, and opportunities to indulge in debauchery.
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The Last Tree tussles with tough issues
New independent film is not for kids
by Sharon Dierberger
Ah, the freedom of childhood: 11-year-old boys playing in mud, wrestling, out-bellowing each other, oblivious of skin color.
Still, despite its family themes, compelling cinematography, evocative score, and impressive acting, The Last Tree is not for kids. It’s worth seeing if you’re ready for an unvarnished, revealing journey into the world of a foster child struggling to find his identity, torn between cultures.
The film centers on three chapters of a Nigerian boy’s life in Lincolnshire (England), London, and Lagos. Femi spends his carefree childhood in the countryside with Mary, the loving, white foster mom he adores. She promises: “She’s not coming to take you away.”
In the next scene, his birth mom returns to take him to dreary London where his troubles begin, including racial tensions between other blacks. We watch him grapple with relationships and life-defining choices. A compassionate teacher who recognizes himself in Femi intervenes in a turning-point moment to hug away the teen’s anger, allowing him to finally sob. Healing begins.
Both moms are described as Christians, although one admonishes harshly. A pastor is a louse. F-bombs fly occasionally. Several characters smoke marijuana. The independent film can be purchased and streamed through a number of virtual cinemas.