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.

“Many of us believed in the value of what we were doing, bearing witness to the killing in the townships,” author and television producer Hamilton Wende told me, when asked about the motivations of white cameramen in South Africa. “God, I still can’t believe some of the terrible things I saw and filmed. I lost count long, long ago of the number of bodies I filmed, but as shocking and frightening as those deaths were, our filming them made a contribution to their not having died in vain.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a moral force in the fight against apartheid, acknowledged as much in his introduction to Marinovich and Silva’s book: “We owe them a tremendous debt for their contribution to the fragile process of transition from repression to democracy, from injustice to freedom.”

The book resonated for Silver, who came of age in South Africa during the depicted events. In the film, he is at his best when he sticks to reality, striking gold in painstakingly authentic recreations of township hostilities. The advancing warriors who wave machetes and guns felt so real that I broke into an anxious sweat remembering what it was like. The director filmed in the exact locations where skirmishes took place and he hired extras from the actual communities, which meant that they were not acting but reliving events.

And yet, verisimilitude notwithstanding, the political story gets lost in the film. What the viewer sees are black people slaughtering each other, without context for understanding that the future of South Africa hinged on stopping the brutality. In fact, the white supremacist government was supporting Zulus who were fighting Nelson Mandela’s supporters. The Bang Bang Club sought to expose this travesty, yet you don’t get a sense of their mission from the film. Nor do you get a sense of their ultimate sobriety of purpose.

The film flubs other details, too. Silver portrays photographer Abdul Shariff as a rookie who begs to work with the white guys and then naively stands up in the line of fire. “It was incredibly false and it makes me cringe,” says Tom Cohen, a former Associated Press reporter who was nearby when Shariff died running for cover. “To take a man who had built his own portfolio covering apartheid and present him as this green kid who calls Greg ‘sir’ and is too dumb to duck fire is amazingly demeaning.”

Other colleagues chafed at the way Silver took liberties with the lifestyle. The guys are shown living it up in bars with hot chicks hanging over them whenever a prize or paycheck rolls in. While war reporters are notorious for womanizing and getting stoned, in both films and real life, in this case only Carter abused substances and the other three photographers were in committed relationships. Any drinking tended to be done morosely at home as the men tried to make sense of the complicity in documenting savagery. Marinovich’s on-screen affair with photo editor Robin Comley, well, that never happened, so I suppose the character is meant to provide requisite box office steam. She’s certainly not believable as a photo editor. The scene where she expresses horror that Marinovich is coolly adjusting the lighting over a corpse is ludicrous.

Judith Matloff is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is a veteran foreign correspondent, who teaches a course on conflict reporting at Columbia, and is the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.