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Catch a Fire

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 10/27/06 19:34:32

"Hot Stuff, indeed."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

On one level, “Catch a Fire” is a heartbreaking tale of how apartheid destroyed the lives and souls of countless citizens of South Africa - the terror, the oppression, the stripping of the very humanity of millions. Yet the film is also eager to connect to modern audiences by showing history repeating. Here is the story of how governments make terrorists out of their enemies, how if you call someone a terrorist, strip them of their rights, submit them to torture, you will only lead them to becoming the very thing they were not.

The symbolism is far from subtle, although the screenplay from Shawn Solvo (“A World Apart”) is determined to remind viewers while that the situation may be the same, there is no other connection between South African freedom fighters of the 1980s and Al-Qaeda terrorists of today. Repeatedly and pointedly, the revolutionaries of “Catch a Fire” tell each other how they do not aim to kill and how their sabotage plans are crafted to ensure zero casualties. For this, the film becomes a warning to those in power who work to rewrite torture laws to fit their own needs: if this is what happens to people who aim for peace, imagine how much worse it must be now, with people who aim for death.

“Catch a Fire” is directed by Philip Noyce, the Australian filmmaker who went from action thrillers to political dramas, delivering such recent successes as “The Quiet American” and the powerful “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” Working from Solvo’s script, Noyce tells the true story of Patrick Chamusso, a South African everyman who, in 1980, worked days as a foreman at the local coal refinery, an everyman who coached the local boys’ soccer team, an everyman who enjoyed a happy home life with his wife and children. Following an explosion at the refinery, Chamusso was taken into custody and tortured, the government certain they had their terrorist; worse, they could keep him as long as they wanted without allowing him a lawyer, provided they never charge him with a crime. He was kept for weeks while his friend, who was also being held without charge, was killed in custody. Upon his release, Chamusso realized the only course of action was to join the very revolutionary group of which he was accused of being a member. The government, by treating him like a terrorist, made him one.

Here, Chamusso is played with equal parts great calm and great fury by Derek Luke, who captures the very essence of his transformation from apolitical father to freedom fighter. We see in the early scenes the fear at his core, politely agreeing to white officers’ demands (always with a “yes, boss” or a “no, boss”), anxiously avoiding joining in during a fight-the-power sing-along that breaks out at the refinery (realizing that to join in would be to draw unwanted attention and be viewed as being part of a cause), reminding his mother to turn off the radio (broadcasting the ANC’s message) before the police might hear. He is not a perfect man - he sneaks off to see the son he had with another woman - but he is by and large a good man, doing what he can to find happiness in a troubled land, and if a few of his coworkers call him an Uncle Tom, so be it, as long as it keeps him out of trouble.

And then we see this same man later, eagerly planning another attack on the refinery, and Luke’s transformation is stunning. He is the same man, only broken and full of rage, and Luke is careful in his performance, reminding us that this is not a movie character but a real man who was driven to violence by other real men. Even when the climax threatens to become more of a thriller (a gripping nighttime chase through the refinery, as Chamusso attempts to elude the police and set his bombs), Luke is intent on keeping his character grounded.

His counterpart is Tim Robbins, playing anti-terrorist agent Nic Vos. Here is our villain of the piece, yet the screenplay is eager to examine the grey areas of his soul. Vos believes that he is a good man doing good things, which always leads to a villain becoming far more interesting. He, too, is a family man, wanting to protect his wife and daughters from terrorists and thugs. And his interests are with justice, not punishing anonymous black men. (He sees no point in convicting Chamusso just to have someone to hang, because the real criminal will still be at large.) More importantly, we can see in Robbins’ eyes how Chamusso’s torture is affecting Vos; when Chamusso shouts “what kind of man are you?” at his captor, we can see Vos filling with doubt. The screenplay is very careful not to let Vos’ inner thoughts become outer, however, meaning that it’s up to Robbins alone to convey the hesitation in his character’s mind.

By remaining silent, the film then asks another question: even if Vos had doubts as to the righteousness of his cause, is he still guilty because he did not act on those doubts? After all, he might know that the torture is wrong but he does not work to stop it. (Indeed, his discovery that Chamusso has turned into a terrorist only seems, in his mind, to justify his actions.)

Noyce is not always as subtle when it comes to delivering such questions, and his film stumbles often in the telling of the tale. (Most problematic is an unnecessary epilogue that hands in a rundown of South African liberation and the rise of Nelson Mandela; it is a bridge to a second, more effective epilogue dealing with the nature of forgiveness and healing in the nation, yet it is a bridge that never quite works due to a faulty assumption that the audience is not familiar with modern history. We get a lot of stock footage-led information that we simply don’t need.) His metaphors are too obvious, his political commentary too heavily shouted. Yet while his direction may lack a certain grace, it does not lack impact. Noyce finds both the beauty and pain at the heart of humanity, and through that, he connects.

Above all, however, “Catch a Fire” belongs entirely to Luke, whose performance is of the sort that elevates a career. The young actor owns this movie from start to finish, and the film’s truest power comes entirely from within him.

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