When Judge Josh Rode was a child he wanted to be in the Mickey Mouse Club.
It's not always black and white.
From 1990-1994, South Africa was torn apart by violent infighting under the duress of Apartheid, a system of legally sanctioned segregation. During those four years the government coerced the Zulu tribes to fight for them against the insurgent African National Congress (ANC), and there were brutal acts of violence from both sides. Much of the conflict was captured on film by combat photographers who brazenly inserted themselves into the most harrowing situations they could find, all in the name of getting the perfect shot.
Facts of the Case
The Bang Bang Club is a mostly true story based on a book written by two of the photographers featured in the film. Many of their real pictures are presented, most re-created onscreen with incredible accuracy. In fact, "incredible" is very much the defining word for The Bang Bang Club, which sticks so close to the depicted events it is nearly a documentary. That shouldn't come as a surprise given that director Steven Silver's only other directing work has been on documentaries. They filmed on location and the recreations were accurate enough that some of the locals had flashbacks.
The Bang Bang Club doesn't have a strong narrative arc; it is more a group character study than a true story. The summation of the film is this: novice photographer Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe, Flags of Our Fathers) makes a name for himself by going where few would dare to tread—into a Zulu compound—and witnesses the brutal slaying of an outsider. His bold move gets him a spot with The Star newspaper, and soon he is whizzing around South Africa with three other photographers. They spend their days finding all the hot spots and clicking away with their cameras at everything they see. But the more pictures of death and despair they take, the more walled off they get from their emotions and the people around them.
There's a fine line between chronicling events and being a part of them; lacking a traditional plot, this dichotomy is what carries the film forward. Greg is present when a man is executed. He tries to stop it, but his protests only make him a target, and he finds himself helpless to do anything but take pictures as the victim is set on fire and then chopped down with a machete. The resulting picture wins him a Pulitzer…and haunts him every day.
The other photographers are immersed in the same situation and deal with it in their own ways. Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) turns to drugs and alcohol, only to find that they add to his problems instead of alleviating them. He wins his own Pulitzer when he takes a shot of a child apparently being stalked by a vulture, but his joy of winning is quickly tempered by the hordes of people denouncing him for taking pictures instead of helping.
Silver does a fantastic job of finding the balance to keep the film moving without dipping into cynicism. Instead, the audience gets to feel the rush of adrenaline that comes from being surrounded by hostile crowds with weapons and a very low tolerance toward outsiders. We understand the need to keep a camera between the horrors being witnessed and the cameraman's soul. The Bang Bang Club is very much a war movie, and just like a soldier who can't afford to think about what he's doing when he's spearing an enemy with a bayonet, the photographers must keep their distance from their surroundings or risk going mad.
On the other hand, the audience recognizes the cold-hearted nature of taking a picture of a starving child who's about to become a vulture's dinner and then walking away once the picture is snapped. What this movie does so well is teeter-totter between these opposing mindsets without relieving us of the burdens of either issue.
The principal actors are superlative. Phillippe is the weakest of the four, but he also has the longest character arc and the most to do. Frank Rautenbach (Hansie) brings a quiet confidence as Ken Ossterbroek, the leader of the group, and Neels Van Jaarsveld (Goodbye Bafana) plays Joao Silva as alternately terse and spastic. He comes across very much like the real Silva does during the "Making of" segment. Kitsch steals the show as the laidback Kevin. His easy smile lights up the screen and he has a smooth, natural charisma that makes him the unconscious focus of every shot he's in. I only wish they had re-created the real Kevin's haunted eyes; Kitsch looks much too bright and innocent for someone who has witnessed his character's life. Casting Director Deirdre Bowen (The Red Violin) deserves a huge heaping of credit for finding this group of relative unknowns, especially since they all look remarkably similar to their real-life counterparts.
The secondary characters aren't given more than a quick basecoat characterization. The Star's editor is rumpled and fearful of printing anything too controversial. The photo editor strikes up a relationship with Greg but aside from one "I can't do this" scene where she gets a taste of Greg's world, she doesn't really grow. The other photographer's girlfriends are given even shorter shrift; we're told their names, but little else. More's the pity, since the best scene in the film is Viv's response to Joao's proposal.
The 1080p 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer comes across well in most cases, with excellent balance. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is good too, although more use could have been made of the surround speakers. I never felt surrounded, even though the photographers often were.
The director's commentary is great, full of insight into all aspects of the film and the characters. The forty-five minute "Making of" featurette is likewise great, which is a rare treat. The extra not to be missed is the cast and crew interview segment by Kgosi Mongake. There are also deleted scenes, every one of which was a good cut, and a short slideshow of production pictures.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are technically four lead characters, but Greg and Kevin get the majority of the screen time. Further, since all of them are closed off emotionally, there are only rare instances when we get to delve deeper than skin surface into any of them.
The Bang Bang Club is a powerful and vivid film that will be twisting inside your head for days.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
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