Directors making the switch from documentaries to features usually do one of two things. They a) stick close to their first calling and make a message movie, or; b) stick close to their first calling and make a message movie. Either they’re not given the opportunity to change it up by the studios hiring them, or they really want to make a difference, even in a medium intent on making monetary progress — not social progress.
Rob Epstein followed up 29 years of documentaries, including The Times of Harvey Milk, with his narrative feature debut Howl, a biography about Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem. Andrew Jarecki, whose documentary debut garnered an Oscar nomination for Capturing the Friedmens, decided to make All Good Things, a true story with cinema verite styling. Kevin Macdonald is actually making the most progress, moving from the politically-charged The Last King of Scotland, to the politically-related State of Play, to The Eagle, a film with historical politics but also plenty of action.
Now, Steven Silver is joining the ranks. After 14 years of documentaries on war and reporters, Silver directed The Bang Bang Club, his fictional retelling of a true story about four photographers covering the covert war in South Africa during the final months of apartheid. Ironically, Silver never fully envelops his subjects, bringing them into an extreme emotional and intellectual close-up that allows the viewer to see the world from their unique perspective – an idea most documentarians strive for above all else.
Based on Greg Marinovich’s book, The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War, the film features four young actors in the lead roles, but two are bound to be front and center in people’s minds. Ryan Phillippe is one, playing Greg Marinovich, one of the book’s authors and arguably the film’s main character. Marinovich is a free-lance photographer who gets a pseudo full-time job after getting pictures of an area in South Africa everyone else was afraid to visit. He joins up with Ken Ooosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach), the book’s second author Joao Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld), and Kevin Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as a team of photojournalists who tirelessly capture the horrors of a country the world tries to ignore.
Phillippe does a decent job capturing the inner turmoil of a man drawn to death while simultaneously being terrified of it, but his expressions are as limited as ever and the character is more of a portal for the viewer than a dynamic, developed individual. Kitsch, on the other hand, gets the film’s juiciest role as the drug-addicted but charismatic Kevin Carter. Anyone wise enough to watch all five brilliant seasons of Friday Night Lights already knows the many talents of the man who brought Tim Riggins to life. Those who missed out on one of the best television series ever made (seriously – go watch it) will soon see Kitsch on the big screen in the blockbuster studio pictures John Carter and Battleship, both due to drop in 2012.
Kitsch’s career is on a meteoric rise, and even if The Bang Bang Club is your first Kitsch experience, you understand why. His charisma is undeniable, and I’m sure his looks don’t damage any eyes, either. Kitsch’s true talent, though, lies in his ability to communicate so much emotion in mere squint. If you blacked out his mouth, you could still tell whether he was grinning like a fool or frowning in frustration. There’s passion there, much like with Russell Crowe or Christian Bale, that many actors work all their lives to obtain. He’s already got it, and its honed nicely, here.
But one supporting actor can’t make a film, especially one carrying as much weight as this. The script, also by Silver, glosses over a lot of the film’s conflict. You’re never forced, or even asked, to understand why these two segments of the population are going at it. They merely are, and the loss of human life is supposed to be striking enough to replace the lack of connection. It’s not, and the somewhat clichéd personal stories of the four photographers aren’t enough to make up for it, either.
The DVD’s making-of feature (and I do mean feature – it clocks in at more than 45 minutes) does a much better job explaining the events, but the true treasures are in the captured reality. Marinovich talks about when he was shot, how it felt, and how he came back from it. The interview is bolstered by footage of Marinovich and Silva showing the actors how to act out that fateful day. Silva, a motor mouth with a focused intensity, only slows down when his friend is talking about how he reacted after Marinovich was shot. There’s a pause as we see him remember. These five minutes of real footage top any of the emotionality found in Silver’s fictional retelling.
The disc’s other special features — a slideshow of behind-the-scenes pictures, short and unnecessary deleted scenes, and an overly long interview with obscure cast and crew members — never get into the acting choices or technical details of filming. Instead, they try to boost the emotional impact of the film by discussing its contents, depicting its setting, and demonstrating its magnitude.
Without the extensive bonus footage, though, everything feels a little undercooked. An image, of say, someone dying is immeasurably more influential in a documentary than a fictional narrative. Even in a true story like this one, the audience won’t connect with portrayed scenes in the same way as if it were the actual footage. We need an emotional attachment established in the depiction of the characters or via unique, striking cinematography to elevate our emotions to that point. Though I wouldn’t say Silver completely lacks the ability to get us there, he fails to maintain the necessary gravitas to make The Bang Bang Club as affecting in its retelling as it undoubtedly was in real life.