An intriguing set-up: four daredevil photographers find themselves in the vortex of history, documenting the time of the first free elections in post-Apartheid South Africa. Hungry to make a name for themselves, they oscillate between the camaraderie of being as close to combat as civilians ever get and an intense competitiveness, while the cruelty and brutality of what they capture on film burns itself into their brains.
Director Silver has some experience as a documentary filmmaker, but his script for the fictional The Bang Bang Club is pedestrian. It never gives any indication of why the photographers do what they do, nor does it go further towards understanding what the job does to them.
The topic is rife with opportunities to tackle issues of ethics and morality, like to what degree a photojournalist is a neutral observer, and when he or she becomes a participant. Should he or she get involved – save someone’s life for example, if they have a chance – and if so, when? And what does it mean to earn your livelihood showing someone else losing theirs? But The Bang Bang Club deals with none of them.
Instead, the storyline consists of a series of near-identical plotlines: the group meets, goes out to take pictures, runs around getting shot at, comes back to give film to the newspaper lady, and then goes for a drink. Occasionally, someone wins a Pulitzer.
In addition to having written a boring script, Silver seems to have no sense of what it means to direct an actor. Granted, someone like Phillippe in the main role as hotshot womanizer Greg Marinovich doesn’t make it easy. His idea of acting is to push his lower jaw forward to indicate drama, and that’s about as sophisticated as it gets.
A straightforward documentary would have been much, much more interesting, as the short portraits of the real men on whom the film is based at the end of the film indicates. And it already exists; Christian Frei’s War Photographer is what you should watch instead of sitting through The Bang Bang Club.
The Bang Bang Club | Directed by Steven Silver (Canada, South Africa 2010) with Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch, Malin Akerman. Opens June 23