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Chaos also reigns in The Bang Bang Club, Steven Silver’s based-on-true-events story of four combat photographers that opens with a very detailed explanation of what was going on in South Africa between 1990 and 1994. Silver then proceeds to illustrate it with scene after scene of unspecified black multitudes yelling and killing each other. The pandemonium serves not to elucidate the politics of the era and its attendant tragedies but as a mere noisy backdrop for a group of white show-offs.
The hot-dogging photogs include the initial trio of the so-called “Bang Bang Club,” the arrogant Ken (Frank Rautenbach), self-destructive Kevin (Taylor Kitsch), and nondescript João (Neels Van Jaarsveld), as well as lucky newcomer Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe). Greg wins a Pulitzer about a minute after he’s accepted by—that is, can follow the action with—the club, and his friends are all jazzed for him, including newspaper photography editor and Greg’s instant new love, Robin (Malin Akerman). Not everyone’s celebrating, though: The film’s got to have a deeper point, and what better way to express it than to have one single (and uncredited) character harass Greg repeatedly for being a Caucasian taking advantage of African grief? There’s also a criminal allegation, though this news is delivered only in a surprising line: “I win this prize and the ANC accuses me of being a state spy?” Uh, it did?
Politics aside, one imagines that illuminating the dangers of the job is also on Silver’s agenda, but he only partially accomplishes the task. More often the guys are shown being frowny-faced at the brutality going on in front of them or, sickeningly, getting a high off of their own brushes with death. This shoddy approach to the subject couldn’t have gotten a worse release date, little over a week after the real-life deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, photographers who were killed covering the unrest in Libya.
With barbecues and nightclubs as much a part of this story as the snappers’ work lives, it’s difficult to care about these characters, particularly with B-listers such as Phillippe and Akerman leading a cast of no-names. (At least—shockingly—Phillippe’s South African accent is consistent, if a bit too English-sounding. Akerman’s just fades in and out.) Greg isn’t the only lauded photographer of the group: Kevin also wins a Pulitzer, but, in line with his one-note characterization, he’s nearly too fucked up on drugs to understand it.
There are a couple of poignant moments, including a press conference in which Kevin is asked if he’d helped the starving girl whose photograph nabbed him notoriety. But more often the film’s politically minded and morally probing framework is marred by its portrayal of veritable frat boys goofing off.