As a portrait of the quiet, unflappable and moral professional photographer with an eye for the right image at the right time, “War Photographer” has no peer. Director Christian Frei refuses to take on faith that American wartime lenser James Nachtwey is the world’s most fearless photojournalist: Instead, he accompanies Nachtwey on several, sometimes hair-raising, assignments that show the man’s brilliance, his cool under fire and his remarkable sensitivity toward his subjects. An instant classic of its kind, docu, which opens Stateside in June, should find ready buyers for prestige docu-friendly slots internationally.
Frei’s masterstroke is immediately apparent, as he has a micro-camera attached to Nachtwey’s 35 mm camera body. It allows us to see Nachtwey from a bug’s p.o.v., if that bug were clinging to his camera and watching the lenser’s every subtle move. More than a mere device, this is a completely fresh way of capturing a photographer going about his work.
Docu sets up the traditional array of talking heads in awe of the subject, from CNN’s Christiane Amanpour remarking on Nachtwey as “a mystery, a loner,” to editor Hans-Hermann Klare of the photo-heavy German mag, Stern, pondering that “Jim is in danger of feeling bulletproof.” These are not empty or exaggerated statements, though, as Frei’s cameras track Nachtwey operating in emotionally and physically demanding conditions in Kosovo and Jakarta, Indonesia in 1999, and in Ramallah in Palestine and an Indonesian sulfur mine in 2000.
Quietly thoughtful and fixedly concentrated, Nachtwey manages to be somehow invisible even when shooting closely to the faces of shattered, grieving Kosovo widows, while showing exquisite manners with everyone he comes in touch with.
If pic has a hidden agenda, it’s to demonstrate that some journalists are motivated by sincere, humanistic intentions, and operate by a strict code of good conduct. But “War Photographer” is fundamentally about Nachtwey as a unique phenomenon, a single-minded reporter-artist who spent years mastering his craft before finally coming to N.Y. to expand his career and build key relationships with such editors as Klare and Christiane Breustedt.
His daredevil work during the worst tensions in South Africa, along with his unprecedented coverage of several African civil wars and genocidal events (the Rwandan catastrophe is highlighted here) sealed his reputation in the ’80s and ’90s as the dean of war photographers.
Nachtwey is openly idealistic, but his eyes betray a slightly worn weariness that’s emotionally felt by the viewer after witnessing some of what Nachtwey has experienced. During a gallery show of Nachtwey’s finest work over the years, his screenwriter friend Denis O’Neill wisely notes that “there are no old combat photographers,” leaving open the question of how much longer Nachtwey can keep going.
Vid lensing has a fine immediacy, capturing a vivid contrast between the hellish conditions the photographer finds himself in and the calm, air-conditioned environs of his editors’ workplaces. Outstanding, contemplative music is from a stable of artists at Munich-based ECM Records.