Author, filmmaker, and all-around badass Sebastian Junger co-directed Restrepo with Tim Hetherington, an English combat photographer who was recently killed in Libya. In his remembrances of Hetherington, Junger writes:
I’m picturing you and your three wounded colleagues in the back of a pickup truck. There are young men with bandannas on their heads and guns in their hands and everyone is screaming and the driver is jamming his overloaded vehicle through the destroyed streets of that city, trying to get you all to the clinic in time.
The terse chaos of the prose is chilling. Junger’s description could also describe the climax of The Bang Bang Club, which is opening around the country over the next weeks. Directed by Steven Silver, the film also imagines the real-life struggle of African combat photographers. Whereas the work of the Restrepo directors genuinely grapples with men’s uneasy fascination with violence, The Bang Bang Club skims the surface of its theme. Cheap thrills overshadow its moments of real power.
It does not take long for Greg Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe) to earn the esteem of his newfound colleagues. A freelance photographer, Greg appears amidst a spat of gang violence. His shots impress a local photo editor (Malin Akerman), and he soon falls into her good graces, too. Friendship develops with Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch), an easy-going, introspective guy who ponders his purpose even as bullets whiz by. Eventually, Greg musters the nerve to photograph a singularly sadistic act of violence. Robin, the photo editor, worries it’s too extreme, yet the AP picks up the photo and Greg earns a Pulitzer. Along with his friends, Greg enjoys his role as a journalistic maverick — their nickname is the film’s title — but the psychic toll of the job becomes too great. Carter spirals into addiction, and Robin watches helplessly as Greg and the others lose their humanity.
Silver attempts to combine a thriller with a character study to impart how violence reshapes the soul of a combat photographer. The thriller elements are somewhat successful, if a little repetitive. Photographers only really participate in combat when they become victims, so Silver must repeat foot chases and the desperate attempts for that one perfect photo. History informs how scenes play out, this is true, but it is easy to get the impression Silver expects the thrilling elements to do the story’s heavy lifting.
Every character-building scene is more underwhelming than the last, and the actors’ energy deflates accordingly. Phillipe has a wonderfully expressive face, and his visible repulsion to combat are quietly memorable. His arc is from a neophyte into a hardened professional, and his chiseled detachment is less compelling than genuine fear. The detachment sometimes works; in the movie’s best scene, Greg brings Robin to photograph a dead child, and he coldly gives her instructions while she quakes in disgust. Still, Phillippe can barely accomplish what the script requires of him in later scenes.
As Carter, Kitsch is a believable addict; his endless bargaining is pathetic and promising in equal measure. He and Silver, however, mishandle another big subplot. The photograph of the starving child and the onlooking vulture will burn into the memory of anyone who sees it, and while it makes sense for Silver to underplay Carter’s initial discovery, he inadequately justifies the photographer’s subsequent decline into depression. What should feel like an emotional highpoint feels like an afterthought, and the power of Carter’s picture only crystallizes the movie’s inert climax.
Between The Bang Bang Club and other accounts of combat journalism, a recalibration of empathy seems like an important part of the job. If we were to watch the circumstances in which a photographer shoots a corpse, we might recoil in disgust, but his/her chief concerns — composition, shutter speed, and depth of field — are precisely what’s necessary to make the photograph work. Silver and his cast highlight this point against the backdrop of important African history, and while the screenplay explores some political nuance, the central point is the price these men paid so the world could see what they saw. It’s an important thing for us to remember, so it’s a pity we’re reminded with an intermittently-engaging film.