As out-of-Africa dramas go these days, Catch a Fire is downright old-fashioned, a liberal political thriller about a noble black man who stands up to a white imperial monster. Directed with disciplined passion by Phillip Noyce, whose proficient Tom Clancy potboilers have never dimmed his devotion to underdog filmmaking, this visceral drama is set in South Africa during the 1980s, when the engineers of apartheid, threatened by escalating resistance from the African National Congress, unleashed their final burst of repressive cruelty. Loosely based on the life of former ANC operative Patrick Chamusso, Catch a Fire grew out of an idea by screenwriter Shawn Slovo’s late father, Joe Slovo, a white former ANC honcho who worked with Chamusso and who briefly appears as a character in the film. The movie charts the radicalization of a simple man who imagined he could stay out of apartheid’s clutches by keeping his head down. Though the drama plays out with Biblical justice — a weak man and his people grow stronger, while a bully and his regime are fatally weakened — Chamusso is no cardboard hero, and his oppressor’s cruelty is complicated by insufficiently suppressed doubt.
When first we meet Chamusso, ably played by American actor Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher), he’s a go-with-the-flow average guy coaching youth soccer and eking out a living in the Northern Transvaal shantytown with his beautiful wife (Bonnie Henna) and two young daughters. Even after witnessing a massacre of suspected radicals at a wedding, Patrick wants no part of the resistance. But he has his secrets, and a small misstep on the night of an ANC attack on the oil refinery where he works (a symbol of South African self-sufficiency in the face of international sanctions) delivers him into the tender arms of Afrikaner police colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) and his murderous goons. Dramatic roles can bring out the bombast in Robbins (see The Shawshank Redemption and the horribly overrated Mystic River), but here he’s terrifyingly restrained as the guitar-strumming fascist who, after ordering up a menu of exquisite torture for a victim, invites him home to lunch with the family. What relations were like between the consultants from both the ANC and white former policemen on the set of Catch a Fire can only be imagined, but their input seems to have brought fullness and depth to Chamusso and Vos, two men crippled by fear of the other. Efficient, sadistic and paranoid, Vos wears the livid pallor of a man slowly waking up to the inefficacy of the warped white-supremacist ideals he signed up for, and to his own responsibility in shaping the furious radicalism growing inside Chamusso. Learning that his wife has been arrested and tortured too, Chamusso takes off for revolutionary training in Mozambique. The rest is a stirring action movie, heightened by Ron Fortunato and Garry Phillips’ ecstatic cinematography, a superior version of the usual white man’s infatuation with Africa’s technicolor beauty.
Like the hero of Hotel Rwanda, Chamusso was transformed by his ordeal. After years of imprisonment on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela also languished, he now lives with his wife, three children and the 80 AIDS orphans the couple has adopted. It’s a happy enough ending that we can forgive the movie’s contrived eleventh-hour scene in which Chamusso, liberated into postapartheid South Africa, stumbles upon a crumpled Vos, swigging away his sorrows in the sand. What you make of the sentimental coda in which Luke and his real-life counterpart kick a soccer ball around Chamusso’s home will depend on whether you think this chapter of the beautiful, benighted country’s story ends with the forgiving spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, where Vos and his ilk could fess up and (maybe) receive absolution from the Chamussos they so grievously harmed. The less rosy message of Catch a Fire is that aggression breeds aggression. There’s enough evidence of that in the latest generation of despots ruling postcolonial Africa to make us hope against hope that The Last King of Scotland may never be counted as the logical sequel to Noyce’s optimistic vision.
CATCH A FIRE | Directed by PHILLIP NOYCE | Written by SHAWN SLOVO | Produced by TIM BEVAN, ERIC FELLNER, ANTHONY MINGHELLA and ROBYN SLOVO | Released by Focus Features | Citywide