An Apartheid-era film based on true events, part newsroom and part war-torn nation—how could Steven Silver’s “The Bang Bang Club” go wrong?
Somehow, and sadly, it does.
Allegedly, “The Bang Bang Club” is a story based on the memoir by photographer Greg Marinovich about four South African photojournalists who braved the violent township streets during Apartheid. The men became increasingly close-knit as civil war and governmental corruption unraveled before them and damaged their collective psyche. They also became increasingly famous when, much to the South African government’s chagrin, their photos hit front pages of publications around the globe. The South African publication Living gave them their name, referring to the sound of gunshots in the areas the men photographed.
These men’s lives were made for the silver screen, and deservedly so. Their experiences on the forefront of violence, capturing moments that changed history, made them instant stars with stories perfect for public consumption. A documentary entitled “The Life of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club,” based on the tragic suicide of one member, was even nominated for an Academy Award. The film focused on the real life of an honorable but troubled man and found success.
“The Bang Bang Club,” however, has received a heinous Hollywood makeover. The film opens with a radio interview of Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who seems like he will be the character in focus, as in the documentary. Those expectations are soon thwarted, though, when the film inexplicably and quickly shifts its perspective to that of the newcomer photographer Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe). He faces the hazing process essential to any form of male camaraderie as he bonds with his fellow photographers. And with time, he begins to show them up with his work.
Phillippe gives “The Bang Bang Club” instant and underwhelming starpower which it could easily do without. His shoddy South African accent lends nothing to the credibility of his character, and he holds a camera as awkwardly as if he has never seen one in his life. In scenes of utmost violence, like when he captures a Pulitzer Prizewinning shot of one man stabbing another in the head, Phillippe clutches his camera and shoots frenetically—the camera looks like a menace rather than a comfortable appendage of his. While “The Bang Bang Club” sets Phillippe up to be its hero, then, his lackluster presence fails to meet that goal.
Worse than Phillippe and even more unnecessary to the film is Malin Ackerman as Robin, Greg’s love interest. Robin follows Greg like a lost and doting puppy, completely devoid of an independent or interesting screen presence. While she meets Greg because she works as a photo editor at the newspaper he works for, her sole purpose in the film is adding sex appeal. She and Greg first consummate their “love” in a clichéd secret office sex scene that surprises the audience no more than it does the fellow Bang Bang Club members. That is to say—the climax is, in a nutshell, anticlimactic.
The same motif of casual, irrelevant, unmotivated sex continues throughout the film, and not just between Greg and Robin. Kevin is made out to be the rockstar of the group, binging on drugs and alcohol, unsatisfied by the adrenaline of photography. He kisses women in bars that approach him like fan girls, receives oral sex while smoking marijuana during a part-time job as a radio deejay, and has the wandering eye of any typical Hollywood bad boy. He simply lacks the depth that would make his character an anomaly.
One of the photographers, Ken (Frank Rautenbach) is married, so Silver evidently felt it necessary to include a scene of him and his wife half-naked in bed, too. While the scene seems like an attempt to create a tender moment between the two that sets the audience up to be sympathetic heartbroken when Ken later dies, it achieves little to that effect. Since the film focuses on Marinovich, I found Ken’s character too underdeveloped to have much of a stake in.
As the men of the Bang Bang Club spend almost as much time banging women and high-fiving each other in bars as they do in their fields of expertise, the film wanders to a place it should never have gone. It loses its integrity as a recreation of true events. It becomes an exploitation of the themes that are known to sell films: violence, sex, and male camaraderie.
Indeed, “The Bang Bang Club” could have been something great. It could have used Greg Marinovich’s memoir to its fullest benefit by focusing on the real and uninhibited version of the story that earned the Bang Bang Club its accolades in the first place. Instead, it let the big hand of Hollywood take its toll. It betrayed itself.
The Bang Bang Club (2010): Directed by Steven Silver; written by Steven Silver; produced by Foundry Films, The Harold Greenberg Fund, Instinctive Film, and Out of Africa Entertainment; director of photography, Miroslaw Baszak; edited by Ronald Sanders and Tad Seaborn; music by Phillip Miller; run time 120 minutes