The Reeler


October 27, 2006

Catch a Fire

Noyce's well-crafted thriller contrasts the confidence of absolute power with the passion it takes to overthrow it

Australian director Phillip Noyce has taken a definitive turn into political filmmaking, and in comparing his early big budget fare (Patriot Games, The Bone Collector) to the more recent Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American and this week's apartheid drama, Catch a Fire, some seem eager to dismiss it as a definitive turn to the left. That's unfortunate, as in fact Noyce's blockbuster tour of duty has equipped him with the skills to bring some of the 20th century's most resonant stories to the masses, dressed in the lean gloss of satisfying thrillers. Casting Tim Robbins in his political movie probably won't convince many that Catch a Fire is not an extended exercise in finger-wagging, but casting him as Nick Vos, a widely loathed colonel in South Africa's Police Security Branch, just might.

The contrast between Robbins' steady, cold blue eyes and those of Patrick Chamusso (played by Antwone Fisher's Derek Luke), which can flash-flood with fear, humility, rage, pride and defiance, suggest both the confidence of absolute power and the passion it takes to overthrow it, two factors at critical play in early 1980s South Africa. Catch a Fire tells the true story of Chamusso's journey from complacent soccer coach and oil refinery foreman, satisfied with being a provider for his family, to a rebel fighter and political operative for the African National Congress, a resistance (some would say terrorist) group attempting to overthrow the apartheid system in South Africa.

It is to Robbins' credit that, after wrongly arresting and torturing Chamusso for an ANC explosion at the refinery, he is able, upon releasing him, to make calling whites the "underdogs" in the apartheid fight (25 million blacks vs. 3 million whites) sound almost plausible. The toxic insularity of Vos' world (and his position), imbue him with a moral ambiguity that is most interesting when he registers, however briefly, the larger implications of his actions. Both men are led (or misled) by the need to protect their families, and Catch a Fire's most relevant portrait may be that of the birth of a terrorist: It is after his wife is also captured and tortured that Chamusso decides to leave his home and train at ANC camps in Mozambique and Angola, eventually conspiring to blow up his hometown's refinery -- and his livelihood.

With a screenplay by Robin Slovo, a white South African whose father was chief of the ANC's military wing and whose mother was murdered by the apartheid regime, Catch a Fire bears the heavy weight of emotion and legacy well. Chamusso's relationship with Precious, his wife, is a grounding force for him as a man and as a rebel, though it is his infidelity, and her desire for revenge, that ends up sending him to the same prison where Nelson Mandela spent 25 years of his life; for a little while the film's message seems in danger of being "segregation's bad, but adultery's worse." The triumph of the 1991 coda, however, along with the appearance of the actual Patrick Chamusso, now running an orphanage in South Africa with his new wife and children, is an irresistible cure for such thematic blips; a little light in the deepening shadows of history.

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