While we tend to think of war photographers as embedded, the rowdy real life party animals in The Bang Bang Club spend more time instead it seems, in bed with any available females in the vicinity. And though the main action of this movie plays out during the tumultuous days of the anti-apartheid struggles leading up to the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa, more than equal time is set aside for cocktails, clubbing and cruising for whatever lusty babe for the night.
An episodic surface examination of four actual photographer colleagues – Greg Marinovich, Joao Silva, Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbrook – The Bang Bang Club is based on the memoir of the same name that Marinovich and Silva later wrote together. Which makes for quite a crowded cast of danger junkie characters in this disjointed scenario, as they jockey for audience attention. But with Ryan Phillipe as shutterbug Marinovich with a bad South African accent as the main course relatively speaking, and hooked up with his repeat offender problematic romantic prey, Malin Akerman. Because the primary plot is certainly not South Africa.
The Bang Bang Club begins, by way of explanation, with the hasty preamble that a secret war is being waged against the anti-apartheid African National Congress. And that’s about it. So are the Bang Bang boys critical witnesses to found history, or tools to be exploited by the white security forces to give the ANC and leader Nelson Mandela a bad rap? Who knows. And it seems as if white South African writer/director Steven Silver was solely concerned with badmouthing blacks as dreaded savages, while at the same time impressing audiences with what dashing studs these photojournalists can be.
Which unfortunately tends to leave a movie critic with the thankless task of describing in decidedly more detail what a movie is not about, but should have been. Less focused on the heat of the historical moment than the hots for the hottie of the moment, The Bang Bang Club didn’t find it necessary or even dramatically worthy to inform viewers about what exactly was going on in the chaotic midst of snapping all those Pulitzer motivated pictures.
In fact, the Zulu tribal Inkatha Freedom Party, headed by chieftain Mangasuthu Buthelezi, was in league with South Africa’s anti-democratic white security forces as a surrogate, covertly financed black entity in its intended bloody repression of Mandela’s rival ANC, during which thousands died. And instead of a seemingly senseless and confused story, what a compelling movie that might have been. Though not substantially unlike the one – or even none – side to every story stateside journalism we’re fed routinely by the corporate media.
In effect, The Bang Bang Club raises unanswered questions intermittently between rounds of revelry, about the amorality of photojournalists as they film murders and massacres in progress without lifting a finger from their cameras to intervene. Matters which tends to remain unsettled and unresolved, as merely a case of professed neutrality in the service of professionalism.
Too bad that this film similarly lacks conviction, or even a point of view. As the self-involved emotional mood swings of the white photographers – and don’t ever call me paparazzi – upstage the entirely left unexplained violence, starvation and suffering going down in Africa.
1 [out of 4] star