“The Bang Bang Club” is a solid action-drama about a real-life quartet of combat photographers who, during the early 1990s, documented the covert South African civil war that pit Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress against the government and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.
Writer-director Steven Silver (with an able assist from cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak) captures this brutal time — which led to the country’s first free, multiracial elections in 1994 and the end of apartheid — in vivid, often bold, but never overpowering strokes.
The titular group, so-named for its intrepid approach to shooting photos amid death-defying chaos, included stalwart Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe), drug-addicted charmer Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch of TV’s “Friday Night Lights”), consummate pro Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach) and hard-nosed Joao Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld). The foursome worked hard and played hard, caught up in the heady world of their high-adrenaline jobs while capturing indelible images that traveled the globe via newspapers and magazines.
The club members’ efforts, individually and as a whole, are given exciting, immersive treatment, though it’s essentially Marinovich’s — and to a lesser extent — Carter’s story. (These two won Pulitzer Prizes for their work). And, even if the script, based on the 2001 memoir by Marinovich and Silva, doesn’t dig especially deeply into its main characters’ clearly complex psyches, each of the four men effectively emerge as uniquely heroic, sometimes tragic and, yes, a little crazy.
The cast, which also includes Malin Akerman as a beautiful photo editor who hires and later falls for Greg, is uniformly strong, with credible accenting by all the non-native performers.
Shot in and around Johannesburg, the film poses a number of essential questions of the trade: What are the responsibilities of a photojournalist beyond just getting the picture? Can you ever go too far to secure the shot? What makes a photograph great? The answers might be more elusive than specific here, often leaving it up to the viewer to decide, but the topics still resonate, especially in light of the deaths on Wednesday of photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in a mortar strike in Libya.