What kind of person wants to go to war, just to bear witness? The Bang-Bang Club, the new feature film from South African filmmaker Steven Silver about South African war photographers near the end of apartheid, introduces some of the moral issues of exploitation and complicity, but ultimately, his film settles for a queasy mix of high-toned intentions and commercial compromises.
Based on a 2000 memoir by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War, this Canadian-South African co-production approaches the issue of journalistic exploitation by trying to be an action movie with a conscience.
Initially, the film seems like something worse: A weirdly tone-deaf portrait of a quartet of hunky guys - Greg Marinovich (Ryan Philippe), Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Joao Silva (Neels van Jaarsveld) and Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach) - caught up in the dubious excitement of photographing atrocities.
The opening scene sees Phillippe, as Greg, joining a scrum of photographers snapping pictures of the corpse of a man cut down by a Zulu group in Soweto. ("Forget the long lens," says a fellow shutterbug, "This stuff only looks good up close.") Later, Greg impetuously decides to follow the killers to their compound to interview them and take more pictures. His bravado and exclusive photos earn him the respect of his peers. Soon, Greg is a member of the gang, dubbed the "Bang-Bang Club" by a South African magazine.
All four of them (in a bit of poetic licence) work for the same publication, under the supervision of sexy photo editor Robin (Malin Akerman). In the mornings the gang heads out in a van to photograph the latest horrors, jumping into the bloody street battles (hair-raisingly re-enacted by South African extras) between Zulu nationalists of the Inkatha Freedom Party and members of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.
At night, the babes and booze flow freely. It's cheers all around when Greg becomes the first to get Robin alone in the darkroom, and then cheers again when he lands a Pulitzer for his shot of a man doused in gasoline and lit afire before being struck down by machete.
There are some hints of dissonance. A black journalist says bitterly: "Another whitey photographer making money off the spilled blood of Africans," but it takes a long time before the cracks begin to show. When they do, nearly all the dramatic heavy-lifting is left to Canadian actor Kitsch ( Friday Night Lights) as the emotionally fragile Kevin Carter.
Carter, who loses himself in a haze of dope each night, decides to leave South Africa. He heads off to the Sudan, where he takes a famous, controversial picture of a starving little girl being stalked by a vulture. The shot earns Carter a Pulitzer as well, but cannot rescue him from his depressive tailspin. Our nominal protagonist, Greg (Phillippe in familiar, furrowed-brow, obtuse mode) is slower coming to an awareness of his blocked empathy. It starts when his girlfriend, Robin, reacts in revulsion as he begins staging the lighting for a shot of a grieving mother holding her dead son.
For all director Silver's attempts to simulate the experience of war photographers, he somehow manages to miss both on the wide shot and the close-up in a film that overlooks both the broader political context and the intimate psychology of his characters. As for the pain of the victim, it remains as abstract as old newspaper images.
The Bang Bang Club
- Directed by Stephen Silver
- Starring Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman and Taylor Kitsch
- Classification: 14A