This is a strange week to review “The Bang Bang Club.” When I saw the film about ten days ago, it was a biopic about the past, and war photographers in 1990s South Africa. Today it feels like a movie about the present. Sitting here, trying to write about the film, I can’t stop thinking about “Restrepo” director and war photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed earlier this week covering the civil war in Libya. We think of movies as these fixed things. But they change right along with us. When I saw “The Bang Bang Club” ten days ago, I liked it. Now, I feel haunted by it.
The film is about a real-life group of photojournalists who were known as “The Bang Bang Club.” They went into the most dangerous parts of South Africa and took photographs that others were too afraid to get. In the process, they brought a secret war to international attention. There were four members of the group: Greg, Ken, Kevin, and Joao. By the time their careers as war photographers were over, either by choice or because of their deaths, two of them had won Pulitzer Prizes for their work.
Director Steven Silver goes to great lengths to recreate the Bang Bang Club’s pictures in the film, even shooting many scenes in the same locations where the original events took place. Even as simulations, these pictures make an impact. Recreations of township riots and fierce militant gunfights pulse with unsettlingly realistic energy. You can feel the tension in every scene.
Though all the members of the Bang Bang Club were South African, several of the actors in the film are North American. Ryan Phillippe plays Greg, the last addition to the crew and the first to win the Pulitzer. Taylor Kitsch plays Kevin, the open-hearted soul who welcomes Greg in. He frames the narrative with an interview with a radio station. “What makes a photograph great?” the host asks Kevin. He pauses, at a loss for words. The movie that follows provides the answer. You know what they say about pictures and words.
The rest of the Club includes Frank Rautenbach as Ken and Neels Van Jaarsveld as Joao. All four make a convincing tight-knit group of friends and colleagues, and Phillippe and Kitsch’s South African accents are good enough to be unnoticeable, which is good enough. The most physically attractive photojournalism staff ever assembled is rounded out by Malin Akerman as their editor, Robin. A love story brews between Greg and Robin which doesn’t add much to the film, though that might be as much the fault of the real people involved as the screenwriters trying to adapt their messy lives into a manageable narrative. Such are the hazards of biopics.
I would have liked “The Bang Bang Club” to more clearly delineated the various forces fighting for control of South Africa. And I wish it directly confronted the racial component of a film about four white men documenting — and also profiting from — the horrors that legions of black men were visting upon one another. The film is largely apolitical, perhaps by design. The Bang Bang Club saw it as their job to witness and record these events, not necessarily to comment on them.
Give “The Bang Bang Club” credit though. It manages to be an entertaining and illuminating look into the lives of photojournalists without blindly valorizing them as perfect, golden heroes. They may be brave; the may also be thrill-seekers. And the film pays more than lip service to the idea that for all the good that these photographers did, they could have done more. To get the shot that won him a Pulitzer Prize, Kevin Carter had to resist the urge to help a starving child as a vulture circled her. After witnessing Greg’s coldness with some subjects, Robin says he pretends like the people he photographs aren’t even human. Greg doesn’t argue. Does that make his actions — and inactions — inhuman?
Phillippe and Kitsch are both such handsome actors, that it’s easy to forget the actor part and focus on the handsome part. But both give strong performances here that honor the legacies and memories of them men they’re portraying. There’s room for more nuance in “The Bang Bang Club,” but there was enough to keep me engaged. And after this week’s news, the film flooded back to me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.