Steven Silver's The Bang Bang Club is set during the final years of South African Apartheid, but it was made in America, so of course it's about the four white guys who took pictures of the struggle. It is also, you will not be surprised to learn, about how one of them enters the group as the brash but inexperienced rookie, slowly earns their respect, has an affair with their sexy photo editor, and wins the Pulitzer before being hit by an unexpected death, a colleague's drug abuse, and a hard case of existential ennui. You will learn all of those things. You will not learn all that much about Apartheid.
And yet, somehow, here I am recommending The Bang Bang Club--not particularly for what it is about, but how it is about it. Silver shoots his picture with a go-go energy and a run-and-gun intensity; it's a fast movie, full of hair-trigger encounters and big, epic street rumbles and people on fire, and damned if you don't get caught up in the breathless spirit of the thing.
Ryan Phillipe leads up the crew of rugged, unshaven, danger-chasing shutterbugs, and it's a decent performance--his accent is passable (certainly better than, say, Leonardo DiCaprio's in Blood Diamond) and he manages to convey the character's inner turmoil with grace. When his Greg Marinovich is starting out, he shoots from a distance, but Kevin (Taylor Kitsch) advises him to "forget the long lens, bro--this stuff looks really good up close." So pushes in, puts himself into danger, tries to shut out the implications the actions in his frames. A telling scene early on finds him plenty torn up about the bloodshed and mayhem he's captured--until he finds out how much they sold for. His qualms have a strange way of washing away when he gets that information.
"There's nothing I could do for those people, any of them, except take a photograph," he insists later. But, to Silver's credit, The Big Bang Club at least acknowledges the questions of journalistic responsibility, primarily when Kevin wins the Pulitzer for a photograph of a starving little girl, watched over by a nearby vulture. He's asked what happened to the girl. He doesn't know. That's not his job. But is that a cop-out? What is their responsibility to their subjects? Are they just, as one character says, "whitey photographers making money off the spilled blood of Africa"? Silver's screenplay doesn't have answers to those questions, or even much to say about them. But at least it raises them, which is more than most films will do.
One wishes they'd have spent a little more time on that stuff and less on the gratuitous affair with the hot editor (Malin Akerman); it's a distraction, and besides, if you're going to insist on that subplot, you should at least go all the way with it and give us the darkroom boink we're waiting for. Several of the other supporting characters are barely drawn at all--at a key point, we're supposed to feel for the surviving girlfriend of a photographer shot in the field, but she gets all of three lines (that's counting before and after they bury him). About all we know about her is that she looks good naked.
By the time the picture meanders into its inevitable third-act complications, it can barely manage to muster up much enthusiasm for them. It's a little depressing, how it collapses into formula without the distractions of the gonzo action scenes. But all is not lost; an extraordinary actor comes out of nowhere to deliver a devastating monologue about the death of his wife and son, and Silver tees up a climactic face-off that confirms the notion that when you're chasing death, you might eventually catch up to it. The Bang Bang Club is not a great film; it's too compromised and pat, and mighty thin besides. But it's better than expected.