Adapted from the autobiographical book The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War co-written by Greg Marinovich and João Silva, writer-director Steven Silver’s dramatization charts the experiences of four photojournalists in the days prior to the downfall of Apartheid in South Africa.
Initially working freelance, Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe) soon finds himself under the tutelage of Kevin “forget the long lens, bro” Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach) and Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld), having won their respect with a series of provocative pictures taken inside one of the warring townships. Working for photo-editor Robin Comley (Malin Åkerman), the quartet are eventually dubbed “The Bang Bang Club” as they put their lives on the line to capture the brutality and desperation of a country nearing the end of Apartheid.
It would be easy to criticize The Bang Bang Club for glossing over certain hard truths and questionable morals to focus on the boozey lifestyles and love lives of its four main players. However, had award-winning documentary filmmaker Steven Silver been aiming to convey the facts alone he would have unlikely chosen to make the project his first feature length film. It was always going to be a compromise doing the subject matter the justice it deserves while appealing to a mainstream audience expecting a more traditional gonzo-journalistic action-adventure film. To Silver’s credit, he manages to inject his narrative with a number of challenging questions regarding the duty of the observer.
The film certainly doesn’t lag in terms of dramatics. Ryan Phillippe’s Marinovich and Taylor Kitsch’s Carter are terrifically compelling as the two leads given the most screen time, while the rest of the ensemble similarly permeate their roles with an infectious charisma. Not only do the actors convince in terms of the macho banter and professional competition, but with their differing perceptions of the work they do too. One of the film’s most powerful scenes – in which Marinovich and Comley are called out to the site of a massacre – beautifully juxtaposes the former’s desensitised professionalism with the latter’s overwhelming compassion. Another, in which Carter is interviewed – or interrogated – upon reception of his Pulitzer, perfectly dramatizes the ethical grey area surrounding their controversial profession.
Perhaps fittingly for a film about award-winning photographers, The Bang Bang Club is also beautifully shot. Not only does cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak rise to the logistical challenge of recreating a number of the photojournalists’ most famous shots, but also in bringing a sense of reality and authenticity to the film. The scale of The Bang Bang Club is truly breath-taking, with many of the battle scenes requiring innumerable extras. What could easily have just felt like four guys taking pictures for 106 minutes is instead a delightfully dynamic, relentlessly engaging and hugely watchable piece of filmmaking.
While certainly not perfect – the narrative does wander in an attempt to stay true to the chronology and geography of events and Silver may have taken his audience’s suspension of disbelief two bottles of Coke too far – The Bang Bang Club is an evocative, entertaining and enlightening tale of bravery, bravado and human brutality.