REVIEW: Timely Bang Bang Club Loses Focus in Glimpse at War Photographers
It's a special disappointment when a movie takes a great subject and lets us down. It's even more heartbreaking when a movie's release coincides with a horrific real-life event. Steven Silver's The Bang Bang Club, based on the true story of four photographers who met and formed a gang of sorts while covering the conflicts in South Africa during the last days of Apartheid, is making its way into American theaters the same week two photojournalists, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington (the latter of whom codirected the fine war documentary Restrepo), were killed covering the conflict in Libya.
Unfortunately, Silver's movie doesn't cut deep enough: It glosses over some thorny questions and hammers too fixedly on others. It's not the movie's job to hand us answers to unanswerable questions. But it ought to do more than float those questions in the form of vague, shaky moral multiple-choice options.
As the movie opens, Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe) is a brash kid with a camera who moves in on the territory of a few more experienced photographers, as they jostle one another to get a clear shot in the midst of mob violence in Soweto, circa 1994. The other photographers accept him almost immediately, and he and Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Joao Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld) and Ken Ooserbroek (Frank Rautenbach) become fast friends, under the watchful eye of newspaper photo editor and de facto den mother Robin Comley (Malin Akerman).
Two of these men, Marinovich and Carter, will go on to win Pulitzers; one will commit suicide and another will be killed in the course of doing the job he loves. (Two members of the group, Marinovich and Silva, live long enough to tell the tale in their 2000 book, The Bang Bang Club, from which Silver drew in writing the screenplay.) The picture follows the group through their usual routine, which generally involves hopping into a truck to drive wherever the action is, and then getting right in the middle of it.
All of the bloody skirmishes they cover involve black people fighting black people; as white guys, no matter how close they get, they're always on the outside with their cameras, looking in. The political situation at the time was admittedly complicated: The goals of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress were hindered by tribal fighting, and the horrific skirmishes gave the photographers plenty of material. (Marinovich won his Pulitzer for capturing a man being burned alive.) That conflict is explained with a few cursory lines of dialogue, and while it isn't the movie's job to dissect and diagram an exceedingly complex and delicate political situation, Silver too often treats it handy backdrop -- a violent thing that just happens to be there for photographers to cover. In the movie's terms, these photographers' bravery -- "derring-do" might be a better word -- becomes more significant than the conflict around them.
Silver gives us plenty of scenes in which these guys dodge bullets (in one case, just to procure a few bottles of Coke) and otherwise insinuate themselves into explosive situations. He does make a few valiant attempts to limn the emotional toll this kind of work takes. Carter, as played by Kitsch, is the most vulnerable of the group, plagued by personal problems and drug use. He also goes on to take one of the most stirring pictures: An image of a little girl in Sudan, weakened by hunger, being eyed by an opportunistic vulture. A year after he won a Pulitzer for the picture, Carter committed suicide, partly, the movie hints, because he couldn't resolve his own feelings of complicity. (In one scene, journalists press the obviously fragile Carter, asking him why he didn't intervene.)
Even though Phillippe is the movie's biggest star -- and is reasonably convincing as a guy who loves the adrenaline rush of his work, even as it puts him face-to-face with inhumane horrors -- Kitsch gives the strongest performance of the group: As Carter begins to unravel, his eyes look haunted and quizzical -- you get the sense that he's trying to reckon with the queasy moral questions his work presents.
Those questions aren't easy to answer, and you can't wave them away with a "Why do these crazy guys do it?" shrug. Photojournalists serve a grim but necessary purpose -- those of us who could never, ever be a Robert Capa or a Henri Cartier-Bresson should count ourselves fortunate that they were there. But The Bang Bang Club is just a little too facile in its exploration of this special breed. Can a photojournalist really shoot a picture of a man being burned alive, show a little personal anguish, and then move on to the next photo? Are these guys just adrenaline junkies with consciences attached? And is that enough? Maybe it is. But The Bang Bang Club stays too safely outside the moral skirmish. It doesn't push its way inside to get the great shot.