A distant view of wars' images
By Jen Chaney
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Any photographer who works in a war-torn region knows that each day could result in his or her own death. That’s a truth that turned into tragic reality earlier this month when photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed, and two of their colleagues seriously injured, while covering the ongoing unrest in Libya. And it’s a truth that writer-director Steven Silver attempts to convey in the now unintentionally timely “The Bang Bang Club,” a film based on the real lives of four investigative photographers who captured the violence in early 1990s South Africa, one freeze-framed image of atrocity at a time.
Unfortunately, Silver’s attempt — based on the book “The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War,” co-written by two of the photographers depicted on-screen — meets with only tepid success. While he does a fine job of visually embedding his audience with his point-and-shoot protagonists, allowing us to see what they see as they snap pictures mere feet from where men are being murdered, there’s something undeniably inert about the whole affair. As close as we are to all the action, emotionally, we may as well be viewing everything that happens from a great distance via the longest possible telephoto lens.
Perhaps that’s because the film does not persuade us to care as much as we should about Greg Marinovich, the character who serves as our primary window into this world. (In real life, he is also co-author, with colleague Joao Silva, of that aforementioned book.)
When we first meet Marinovich (played with reserved commitment by Ryan Phillippe), he is an ambitious photojournalist, one who isn’t afraid to lean in for close-ups as the blood drains from the body of an African National Congress supporter just stabbed by a Zulu enemy. Yet he still maintains a sensitive side, a need to pause, catch his breath and contemplate before coldly capturing the dissidence and death that surround him. As the movie progresses — and as Greg takes more photographs as a stringer for the Johannesburg Star, turns a dalliance with the Star’s photo editor (Malin Akerman) into a relationship and eventually wins a Pulitzer Prize — his softness hardens and his determination to record unspeakable horrors deepens.
It’s a decent narrative arc, but one that looks like a speed bump when compared with the more dramatic curvature found in the story of fellow “Club” member Kevin Carter. This is the guy “The Bang Bang Club” should have been about.
A gifted photographer, a drug user and a man with a crippling sense of guilt induced by his famous Pulitzer Prize-winning image of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese girl, Carter’s life provides more compelling fodder for exploration than Marinovich’s journey, at least as it’s depicted here. It also helps that Carter is portrayed by the charismatic Taylor Kitsch, a rising star who has swapped the Texas drawl he perfected during five seasons on TV’s “Friday Night Lights” for the more proper cadences of a South African. The accent may not always be spot-on, but Kitsch does a fine job of conveying both Carter’s easygoing confidence and the unspoken sadness that lurks beneath the surface. Every time he shows up on-screen — which is frequent enough to make it even more clear that he should have been the character in the foreground of this portrait — the film gets a pulse.
Sure, Silver likely didn’t devote more of the movie to Carter because he based it on the book, written by Marinovich — from his own point of view. Also, perhaps he (wisely) just wanted to make a film about the broader issues raised by the work of the Bang Bang Club, a label given to Marinovich, Carter, Silva and their Star colleague, Ken Oosterbroek, in a magazine profile.
Issues like: When does taking such photographs shift from good journalism to disrespectful invasion of privacy? At what point does the courage required to enter a war zone turn into an unhealthy, dangerous compulsion? What, as a radio interviewer asks Carter during the film, makes a great picture?
“Maybe what makes a great picture,” Carter tells the reporter, “is one that asks a question.”
Indeed, “The Bang Bang Club” couldn’t be asking such provocative questions at a more appropriate cultural moment. It’s just unfortunate that it doesn’t move us more effectively while it’s asking them. On the emotional spectrum, this one ultimately falls smack in the mild middle, somewhere between bang-bang and whimper-whimper.
Contains violence, sexual situations and foul language.