(2010) Historical Drama (Tribeca) Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman, Taylor Kitsch, Frank Rautenbach, Neels Van Jaarsveld, Patrick Lyster, Russel Savadier. Directed by Steven Silver
It takes a certain kind of person to become a combat photojournalist. You have to have the courage to put yourself in harm’s way to get the perfect shot. You have to be able to distance yourself from the subject, because becoming emotionally attached will compromise your journalistic objectivity. However, when these things begin to blur the line between your career and your humanity, what then?
Greg Marinovich (Philippe) is a young freelance photojournalist trying to make a name for himself in the early 90s in South Africa. Apartheid is dying; Nelson Mandela has been released from prison and his African National Congress is demanding changes in the white-run nation. Meanwhile, minority black tribal workers are fighting with the ANC over wages, believing if they join the strike, they will lose their jobs and their families will starve.
It becomes the kind of war that we have since seen in Rwanda and Darfur – horrific murders and mob mentality. The police, who have no reason to love the ANC, are believed to be complicit. Greg is taken under the wing of Kevin Carter (Kitsch), a hard-living photojournalist who works at the Johannesburg Star along with Brazilian national Joao Silva (Van Jaarsveld) and South African native Ken Oosterbroek (Rautenbach). Carter advises young Marinovich to ditch the telephoto and get up close shots; those are what publishers are buying, and making money is the name of the game.
Greg decides to get waaay close and goes into a Soweto enclave controlled by the Inkatha Freedom Party, mostly composed of the Zulu and Xhosa tribes. Chased through the narrow streets, he is brought before a leader of the IFP and explains he wants to tell their side of things. While with these leaders, he witnesses a brutal murder and captures it on film. His pictures are purchased and Greg is given a job by the comely photo editor of the Star, Robin Comley (Akerman).
The four photojournalists quickly develop a reputation for taking risks and getting incredible shots of the upheaval that is rippling through South Africa. The photographs the group is getting are taking the world by storm, appearing on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Marinovich wins a Pulitzer for witnessing another brutal murder of a suspected Inkatha spy being set ablaze and then killed with a machete blow to the neck. However, he is forced to take an extended vacation when the South African police want to bring in Marinovich for questioning about what he witnessed; he knows if he identifies any of the killers he will have a great big target on his back and his usefulness as a photojournalist in South Africa will be finished.
By now Marinovich is in a romantic relationship with Comley and the four members of what has been termed the Bang Bang Club have become nothing short of rock stars – partying hard, receiving the adulation of women and barflies all over South Africa and kicking ass and taking names.
Particularly living the life of a rock star is Carter, who is constantly broke because of his prodigious drug use. Despite the pleas to keep him on, Comley is forced to fire Carter because he’s become unreliable and dangerous. Returning to the freelance ranks from whence he sprang, Carter wins a Pulitzer for a controversial photo of a vulture stalking a half-starved little girl. Carter is forced to defend his status of an observer, and not making sure the little girl made it to where food, water and medical care was available (the fate of the little girl, who had gotten up and walked away according to the real Kevin Carter, is unknown to this day).
As the end of apartheid nears, the friendship of the four men will be tested and their flair for entering dangerous areas and risking their lives will lead to tragedy. The Bang Bang Club will literally have their own bang bang turn on them, viciously.
This was largely filmed in South Africa and whenever possible in the actual locations that the pictures were taken. Many of the pictures taken by the photographers are recreated here, and you get the sense that like any great piece of art, the genius is as much accidental as it is a product of preparation.
The debate here is at what point does a photographer lose their own humanity in becoming an observer of humanity. Was the shot of the little girl compelling and heartbreaking? Absolutely. Should Carter have intervened? I believe he should have. There comes a point where you have to set aside your objectivity and become a human being. I would imagine there are a great number of hardcore journalists who would disagree, perhaps even vehemently. I’m sure the argument is that a journalist cannot do their job properly without objectivity. I grant you that – but any job that requires you to give up your humanity in order to do it properly is not a job worth doing – period.
Soapbox ranting aside, this is well acted. Phillippe, who has shown flashes of brilliance at times in his career, achieves it here. This is by far the best work of his career. Marinovich is not just a thrill-seeker, but I think if you had asked him at the time Phillippe was playing him why he was doing what he did, he probably couldn’t have articulated it and Phillippe doesn’t attempt to. He simply sinks deeper into the morass of ethical and moral conflict.
Kitsch is also compelling as Carter, a man haunted by demons most of his life. Kitsch takes Carter from a self-confident, balls-to-the-wall combat photojournalist and deconstructs him through drug use and of course the nightmares of the horrible images he’s witnessed – and recorded – into a man lost and broken. It’s truly stellar work.
Now, I know that there is a kernel of truth to the stereotype of the gonzo war correspondent, hanging out in bars and discos, swapping war stories, engaging in stupid macho behavior and drinking themselves into cirrhosis and I think that does the profession a disservice. Sure some of them are that way – type “A” thrillseekers who don’t think they’ve done their job right unless they’ve been shot at. Most combat photojournalists are professionals who don’t behave like frat guys at a kegger; they’re focused and generally, pretty low-key. They aren’t as effective in their work when they’re treated like rock stars; they are far better able to do what they do when they can blend in more.
There are a lot of questions asked here about the lines between observing humanity and being human. Personally, I think this should be required viewing at every journalism school in the country. Not because they should emulate the behavior of the Bang Bang Club – but because they shouldn’t.
REASONS TO GO: A terrific look at not only the final days of Apartheid but also what makes a combat photographer tick. Phillippe gives one of the best performances of his career.
REASONS TO STAY: A little overloaded with journalist testosterone disease – photojournalists as rock stars.
FAMILY VALUES: Although unrated, there were scenes of war violence, torture and drug use. There’s plenty of bad language and some sexual situations as well. .
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bang Bang in the name of the group’s title refers to the automatic weapon fire that accompanied their assignments.
HOME OR THEATER: This is available on Video on Demand until the end of the month; it might be harder to find at your local art house, but if it’s playing at a theater near you, by all means see it there.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans
I really enjoyed your review. You obviously made the effort to get the background story correctly, even correctly identifying the tribal names. And I certainly agree with you about the level of performance. It’s true all around including the smaller parts, and even the “extras” who were sometimes the very same native people from the original events.
But one distinction, I think, should be made. Perhaps it wasn’t true of Ken Oosterbrook and Joao Silva, the former who was the newspaper’s lead photographer and the latter who went on to make a career of war journalism, but Greg Marinovich, Ryan Phillippe’s character, was not a professional news photographer before joining up with the others. He was really just a neophyte portrait photographer. Stephen Silver has said he chose to tell this story primarily from Marinovich’s perspective because he came in as a concerned citizen, something many of us can relate to. Yes, I think he got caught up in the acclaim and camaraderie of the group, but this is more of a tale of taking great personal risks to focus on a horrible injustice than the story of war photographers.
However, whether one agrees with me or not, I do agree with you that this is worth the time and effort to see. A splendidly produced film about a very interesting subject.