Returning to the sociopolitical mode of Rabbit-Proof Fence, Philip Noyce excavates a very personal conflict from the morass of apartheid-era South Africa in Catch a Fire. In Noyce's hands, the true story of opposing Everymen plays like a political Heat, but for the sake of the scrupulously researched social history, a bit of artificially induced pulse-pounding can be forgiven.
Forgiveness, as it turns out, is a central theme of Catch a Fire, but such grace is hard-won, the tenuously hopeful result of a lifetime of war-bred bitterness. Derek Luke plays Patrick Chamusso, an oil refinery worker who's taken to hard a lesson taught him in childhood: "Be smart and keep your head down." When wrongfully accused of politically motivated sabotage, Chamusso suffers under torture and threats to his delicate existence (a wife, a mistress, and three kids between them). Ironically, only the mistreatment by police pledged to crush rebels could turn the complacent Chamusso into one.
Tim Robbins plays Nic Vos, the police colonel with Chamusso in his sights. Screenwriter Shawn Slovo (A World Apart) admirably takes care never to paint the torturer as a stock villain; he's ruthless in his methods, but also a family man with nationalistic motives. Vos breaks bread with his captive and has no intention of letting an innocent man hang out to dry. Still, inscrutable remoteness can be an occupational hazard: he sizes up his family almost as clinically as his suspects. Though Robbins' accent meanders, he brings clarity and humanity to the composite character.
Luke's leading performance is equally vital in conveying a man's discovery that he should no longer be a witness to history, but rather a determined participant. Slovo may hew more to a neatly, tightly etched arc with Chamusso—scolding his mother-in-law harshly for listening to African National Congress broadcasts, then later turning up the radio in defiance—but Luke makes the man's reticence and righteous indignation equally believable.
Though Chamusso's resistance is politically rational (the ANC never sought to kill in its actions), its boiling fervency cannot help but reflect the maxim that one man's terrorist is another man's revolutionary. Indeed, Vos' hamhanded investigation—for the Anti-Terrorist Squad—succeeds in creating a so-called "terrorist"; until he's charged, Chamusso has no right to a lawyer and can be held as long as Vos pleases (sound familiar?). Noyce implicitly critiques the kind of ideologically inflexible governmental attitudes and blithe systematic abuses that spawn enemies.
Expert lensing by Garry Phillips, emotional use of "freedom songs," and, yes, thriller overtones help to change up Noyce and Slovo's generally straightforward storytelling (the closing moments succumb to spelling out the film's message), while authentic locations and Chamusso himself contribute to the film's verisimilitude. As a work of docudramatic history, Catch a Fire has an emotional impact with a minimum of undue fussing.
[For Groucho's interview with Tim Robbins, Phillip Noyce, Shawn Slovo, & Robyn Slovo, click here.]