The title The Bang Bang Club refers to a core group of four photojournalists—Greg Marinovich, Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbroek, and Joao Silva—who earned the name by covering the violence and turmoil in South Africa from 1990 to 1994. Two of them, Marinovich and Carter, won Pulitzers, and their half-courageous/half-crazy willingness to put themselves in the middle of the uprising helped bring a “secret war” home to the rest of the world. Based on Marinovich’s memoir, Steven Silver’s disappointingly weightless docudrama makes their adventures look at times like Entourage: The Apartheid Years, as the gang works hard in order to party harder. Silver means to get across the adrenaline rush of lives lived in dangerous extremes, but winds up trivializing their accomplishments and making them seem like men of hearty appetites, but little intellectual depth.
As Marinovich, an intense Ryan Phillippe plays the audience’s guide through these murky waters, beginning the film as a green photographer whose moxie makes up for his inexperience. He immediately gains his peers’ respect by venturing alone into hostile neighborhoods just to get a shot, but soon discovers the value of traveling in a group. Taylor Kitsch, Frank Rautenbach, and Neels Van Jaarsveld play Carter, Oosterbroek, and Silva, respectively, three seasoned photojournalists who compete against each other for the best shot, but otherwise share a fierce—and at times, rowdy—camaraderie. Attractive love interests abound for all four men, most notably a South African photo editor (Malin Akerman) who falls for Marinovich in spite of her wariness about dating photographers.
In mixing its subjects’ personal and professional lives, The Bang Bang Club establishes a rhythm from the start: harrowing images of photojournalists snapping pictures in the middle of gunfire and swarming mobs, followed by sweaty workouts in nightclubs or in the sack. Rinse, repeat. As the stress of their situation increases, along with the attention that others give to their work, the film starts to take on deeper, more troubling questions about their responsibilities as photojournalists and as human beings. But by then, it’s too late. They haven’t earned the added gravitas.