How To Create a Freedom Fighter
Two American actors square off in Catch a Fire, a stirring political thriller about one man's role in the long struggle by black South Africans to overthrow white rule and its defining policy of apartheid. Derek Luke portrays Patrick Chamusso, an apolitical engineer driven to armed insurgency by his treatment at the hands of a Boer security official named Nic Vos, played by Tim Robbins.
Dealing with large historical events through the prism of two men -- their interaction with one another and their respective personal stories -- is a tried-and-true dramatic method. The danger exists for complex events to be oversimplified and their larger significance to be watered down. Charismatic performances and sure-handed direction by Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) ensure that doesn't happen.
In the early 1980s, Chamusso is focused on his job at the huge and vital Secunda oil refinery in the eastern Transvaal. It allows him to provide a decent living for his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna) and their two young daughters. A soccer enthusiast, his main avocation is coaching a local boys' team. One night when he's away with the team at a tournament, the facility is rocked by a terrorist bomb. He is arrested by the anti-terrorism squad led by Colonel Vos and accused of being involved. After he and Precious are both tortured at a farm where Vos interrogates detainees, Chamusso confesses. Knowing he's lying, Vos releases him. But the ordeal awakens his political instincts and he quits his job and joins the military wing of the African National Congress. After training in Mozambique (with the Colonel keeping close tabs), he plots an attack on the refinery.
Noyce offers some beautiful passages in the movie's first half-hour and he vividly depicts the tense human drama in the middle and action sequences toward the end. He's equally fluid when treating the settings and psychology of whites in their fortified suburbs and blacks in the townships, when getting inside the mind of the policeman and the rebel insurgents.
The screenplay for Catch a Fire was penned by Shawn Slovo, daughter of Joe Slovo, a white military advisor to the ANC who befriended Chamusso during his training. Her goal was to tell Chamusso's story and that requires taking plot shortcuts and incidental liberties with the facts. For instance, we see footage of the real Chamusso at the end of the movie and he doesn't resemble Luke (Antwone Fisher), who's got the potential for stardom.
More significantly, Slovo presents an intriguing villain who proves to be something of a distraction. Doubts arise in the final reel concerning Vos' exact role in events. Again, these are acceptable. Harder to dismiss are hints that he might see the error of his ways and change his spots, or at least that he might reveal hidden doubts and motivations (other than preserving the status quo long enough to keep his own family safe). Such a Hollywood moment never comes and that's a good thing.
Still, you suspect the role might have been significantly altered when the well-known Yank Robbins (Mystic River) -- who not only looks like a Boer but gives a strong performance -- signed on to the project. His casting underscores the difficulties in framing this story as a confrontation between two individuals. And yet, while Vos may be more compelling because he's the more subtle, enigmatic character, Chamusso emerges with his heroism in tact. The facts behind Catch a Fire are too powerful for the film to be hobbled by any lingering questions about his nemesis or the screenwriter's methodology.
(Released by Focus Features and rated “PG-13” for thematic material involving torture and other violence and brief language.)