The Bang Bang Club, written and directed by Steven Silver; starring Ryan Phillippe, Taylor Kitsch, Malin Akerman, Frank Rautenbach, and Neels Van Jaarsveld | Tribeca Film | 106 minutes
In a key moment in the recent film The Bang Bang Club, South African war photographer Greg Marinovich, complaining of thirst, dashes past snipers to fetch Cokes across the street. As the daredevil, eluding bullets, slides back with the drinks like a man scoring a home run, his comrades chortle.
It’s an eye-poppingly cinematic moment, even if it didn’t quite happen that way. The real-life Marinovich did take a calculated risk during a lull in shooting in search of a soda, but figured that he could make the run in safety, having done so many times before. His colleagues would not have been so amused if he had risked his life over a drink, and in any case most of the time Marinovich operated with greater caution.
So it goes with The Bang Bang Club, which is based on the memoir that Marinovich wrote with João Silva, the two survivors of a quartet of young white lensmen who drove into black townships to chronicle factional fighting in the final days of apartheid. The film depicts the photographers as reckless thrill-seekers, swaggering into newsrooms like rock stars and canoodling with babes, when not jumping into cars to chase “Bang Bang” (violence). Bad stuff happens—one guy, Ken Oosterbroek, dies in crossfire and another, Kevin Carter, commits suicide. Marinovich takes a bullet and almost perishes. But the lasting impression is that these were adventurists who profited off others’ misery.
As it happens, Marinovich, Silva, and company were hardly callous opportunists who cared only about getting the big pictures. Nor did they enjoy nearly half the amount of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll that director Steven Silver would have us believe. I know because I worked with Carter as a member of the Johannesburg press corps in the early 1990s. Marinovich took pictures at my wedding and Silva shot the cover of my first book. Yes, all of us to some degree were out for careers and money, and all of us lived off adrenaline. But the reporters and photographers stationed in South Africa at the time were also compassionate human beings who exposed themselves to danger because they wanted to record history. This doesn’t particularly come through in the film.
Instead, Silver plays to the Hollywood stereotype of journalists as heartless outsiders. After a fun day taking pictures of black people massacring each other, the lads go back to the white suburbs and party—the implication being that the bloodshed is a game to them. He doesn’t get that these photographers cared passionately about their country, and that they exposed themselves to hazard not for kicks but to document the amazing political transformation taking place.
The film is the latest Hollywood production to get the role of the conflict correspondent wrong. With rare exception, cinema glamorizes and simplifies war, and it also simplifies the role of the journalists who cover it. To test the theory that screenwriters consistently misrepresent combat correspondents, I took a look at several seminal features made over the past four decades, including The Green Berets (1968), Apocalypse Now (1979), Salvador (1986), Under Fire (1983), The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Full Metal Jacket (1987), The Killing Fields (1984), and We Were Soldiers (2002). Watch one or all and you’ll come to the same conclusion: war correspondents are misguided souls or narcissists with dubious codes of ethics.
Perhaps the worst extreme is Dennis Hopper’s crazed photographer in Apocalypse Now, a man so drugged one marvels he can hold a camera. The cynical hacks depicted in Salvador, Under Fire, and The Year of Living Dangerously don’t fare much better on the sympathy scale. Redemption only comes when these neutral observers take sides. On screen, in such tours of Vietnam as Full Metal Jacket, The Green Berets, and We Were Soldiers, journalists actually pick up arms. The lead in Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) proves his humanity by smuggling a girl out of Bosnia. Under Fire’s Nick Nolte goes so far as to fake a photo to save the revolution. Never mind that real reporters would get fired for that.
More disturbing, the silver screen belittles the idea that documenting history is not necessarily inferior to actively participating in it.