x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The Bang Bang Club somehow oversells its dramatic potential

This punchy docudrama can still be enjoyed as a straightforward war-zone thriller, even if its dramatic lens are slightly smudged.

The Bang Bang Club tells the story of photojournalists during the collapse of South Africa's apartheid regime. Courtesy Foundry Films
The Bang Bang Club tells the story of photojournalists during the collapse of South Africa's apartheid regime. Courtesy Foundry Films

The Bang Bang Club
Director: Steven Silver
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch, Malin Åkerman, Frank Rautenbach

Movies about war photographers are inherently exciting, their camera-toting anti-heroes risking life and limb as they wrestle with the morality of documenting other people's misery through the detached gaze of a zoom lens.

In the grand tradition of The Killing Fields, Full Metal Jacket, Under Fire and Salvador, this true-life thriller, coming to UAE cinemas two years after its Canadian release, is based on a memoir by two survivors of a reckless young band of photojournalists who captured the bloody collapse of the apartheid regime in early 1990s South Africa. They earned global fame and glittering prizes for their work but they also paid a high price, with death and serious injury never far away.

Ryan Phillippe plays Greg Marinovich, the fearless young hotshot who becomes romantically entangled with Malin Åkerman's sexy photo editor Robin Comley. Meanwhile, Taylor Kitsch simmers and broods as Kevin Carter, the troubled snapper with rock-star looks whose world-famous shot of a starving Sudanese child earned him the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. The former documentary-maker Steven Silver brings a sharp eye to his debut dramatic feature, infusing the action with gritty newsreel realism and restaging several of the group's best-known photos in impressively authentic detail.

Scenes of violent street battles, police brutality and public executions can hardly fail to generate a kind of harrowing, heart-thumping tension. And yet The Bang Bang Club somehow still manages to undersell its own dramatic potential. Part of the problem lies with Silver's heavy concentration on the romance between Marinovich and Comley at the expense of the photojournalism angle. Thus Phillippe and Åkerman dominate the film. They're a handsome enough couple but painfully low on chemistry or charisma. This is no doubt an attempt to inject some human emotion into an otherwise disjointed narrative awash with boorish battlefield machismo, but it still feels like a failure of nerve.

The Bang Bang Club is a juicy true story set against a turbulent chapter in recent history but it settles for rehashing the cliches of its genre instead of digging deeper into some fascinating real-life personalities. The marginal involvement of black characters in a story about the dying days of apartheid also feels like a strange oversight, as does the script's reluctance to explore the tortuous ethical dilemmas of journalistic detachment in the face of extreme suffering. That said, Silver's punchy docudrama can still be enjoyed as a straightforward war-zone thriller, even if its dramatic lens is slightly smudged and its moral focus a little blurry.