“They’re right. All those people who say it’s our job to just sit and watch people die. They’re right.”
A starving, war savaged toddler girl squats, burying her face in the sun baked earth of the Sudan. She remains motionless, near death and locked in catatonic despair. A few feet behind her a vulture, nearly as big as the child, eyes her hungrily and patiently waits for her to grow too weak to fight it off. A photographer quietly circles the scene, snapping away and looking for the best angle. He finds it, gets the shot and leaves. The photo wins a Pulitzer Prize. The little girl presumably gets eaten by the vulture.
Welcome to the world of combat photography. Did the photographer have a humanitarian responsibility to intervene and save that child? If by getting this photo the world is alerted to a truth it can no longer look away from, did he saves thousands of children by sacrificing this one? If remaining a neutral party allows him access to these war-torn lands and that same neutrality serves as his only meager shield from the violence, can a wartime cameraman get involved in any way other than being a witness and documentarian? Or are these photojournalists just like the vulture, silently stalking their prey and reaping the rewards of death and violence?
These are the questions asked in The Bang Bang Club, based on the true story memoir of the same name written by combat photographers Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe), and João Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld). The title comes from a nickname given these adrenaline junkie photojournalists due to their knack for dodging bullets in the name of the news. The main arc follows Greg as he earns his membership in the club joining João and his two partners Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), and Ken Osterbroek (Frank Rautenbach). Reporting on the horrors of the last days of Apartheid, the photographers embed themselves in both sides of the frontline of a bloody civil war.
The biggest problem of this movie is it is brutally slow. There really isn’t a narrative, only a recreation of the facts. It should come as no surprise that first time feature film writer/director Steven Silver was a documentarian first. He keeps the camera neutral and doesn’t obviously take a political side, leaving the viewer to decide what is right and wrong. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really take us into the minds of the leads. Like them, we witness the movie feeling impartial, if not a little disgusted by the ugliness before us. Silver captures the action convincingly, but never engages us on an emotional level. The script feels heavy-handed and clichéd, especially in the final reel.
The photos are haunting and tragic, far more so than the characters. The secondary characters, in particular the girlfriends, are two dimensional and, other than Greg’s girlfriend, Robin (Malin Akerman), they give us little other than their names and some lovely nude shots. The extras are terrifyingly realistic and the sets and locations deeply authentic.
The AVC/MPEG-4 1080p encoded 2.35.1 transfer maintains an average of 31Mbps. For the most part the colors are rich, and the slightly amber-hued exterior shots capture the sun-soaked squalor of South Africa. The low lit interiors suffer moderate contrast boosting, and the blacks tend to be a bit crushed. Skin tones look natural and expressive. There is little to no grain; in fact, most scenes look a bit too pristine and clean, not capturing the grittiness the story demands.
The soundtrack contains both DTS HD Master Audio and 5.1 Dolby options. There is some immersion in the surround, but not nearly enough for a film that often finds you literally surrounded by dynamic and violent elements. The levels are a bit off, with the dialog often overwhelmed by gunshots and screams. The music is rich and evocative, if a bit loud in comparison to dialog and SFX.
Feature Commentary with Writer/Director Steven Silver This is for diehard fans of the film or director only. Dry, detailed, and rarely engaging, it comes across like the history class you used to nap through in college. A lot of attention is given to the research and back work that went into creating the script. It was frustrating that often material worth commenting on passed by on screen while Silver ignored it to tell some boring to moderately interesting back story.
The Bonus Materials are presented in Hi-Def (HD) video quality with Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound.
The Making of The Bang Bang Club (HD 45:01) kicks off with Joao Silva, author and original members of the “Bang Bang Club,” giving a tutorial in combat photography realism to the cast and crew. This brief bit is the most interesting stuff. The rest of this overlong featurette follows the path of most EPKs, interviewing cast and crew to mine anecdotes and creative motivations, but with exceptionally poor quality audio and video clips.
The Bang Bang Club Behind-the-Scenes Slideshow (HD 4:05) keeping the theme of photography alive, these pictures chronicle the film’s production. This would have been much better if it were a collection of the real photos taken by the real Bang Bang Club.
Deleted Scenes (HD 5:29):
- Greg Leaves Home
- Joao’s Arse
- Shower Scene
- My Name is Kevin Carter
- Election Day
Kgosi Mongake Interviews Cast and Crew (HD 17:20) – One of the film’s young extras interviews the cast and crew. This was kind of funny and very culturally engaging.
If you remember these historic photos and wondered how they were captured, or if you are in awe of combat photojournalism and drawing attention to South African atrocities, you will love this movie and probably the book as well. If however, you are looking for a drama with some action that gets under your skin and makes you emotionally feel anything in reaction to the story on screen; this is not your movie. Perhaps you should check out The Year of Living Dangerously or Salvador instead.
“I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…”