“Catch a Fire” ignites a burning issue but never quells the flames. Though technically excellent, director Phillip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “The Quiet American”) has crafted a film that fails to live up even to its own name.
Patrick Chamusso, played by “Antwone Fisher” star Derek Luke, is a law-abiding family man who distances himself from politics and devotes himself to his work. He is also one of 25 million black South Africans oppressed by the apartheid government. The year is 1980, and the administration, grounded in a segregationist ideology, stacks exclusively white leaders in positions of power so that they can tend to the fancies of the ruling class — 3 million fellow whites — and summarily ignore the economic and social instability afflicting everyone else.
While thousands of aggrieved hoi polloi ignite a rebellion by joining the ranks of the anti-apartheid African National Congress, Chamusso remains dedicated to his job, to his wife, Precious, and to his two young daughters. He is content to live peacefully and to tolerate his mistreatment. When he is abused by a venomous policeman, he bows his head in deference and ends each sentence with “boss.” And when Chamusso is wrongly accused of bombing the refinery where he works, he tolerates his torture.
But he refuses to tolerate the torture of his wife. When Security Branch Colonel Nic Vos, portrayed by a stone-cold Tim Robbins, abuses Precious, Chamusso is compelled to join the insurrection. He is instantly radicalized, and the only way he will be vindicated is to wreak havoc in South Africa and to deracinate the apartheid regime.
A fascinating plot ensues, but the fundamental question has already been raised: What came first, the terrorist insurrection or the oppressive government? We witness the radicalization of Patrick Chamusso and, as the filmmakers undoubtedly intended, we create analogues to the present day. The question is unanswerable, and “Catch a Fire” recognizes this, but the film only would have succeeded if it made a stronger attempt to explore the issue.
Instead of an incisive investigation into the motives behind Chamusso’s newfound aggressions, we are presented with an oversimplified, underdeveloped notion of consequences: A man who has been wronged decides to make things right by seeking revenge. Clearly there’s more to the story. Where is Chamusso’s inner struggle, his self-destructive conflict, his gut-wrenching ambivalence? Instead, we observe Chamusso’s unexpected epiphany that the most provident action is to defect to Mozambique and join the ANC.
Time that should have been spent developing Chamusso’s decision making is instead dedicated to presenting an evenhanded depiction of Nic Vos. The idea is to demonstrate his humanity. After all, his job is to keep South Africa safe, and he does his job diligently. But this is not “Munich” — the content is not so ambivalent that the audience needs to be pampered. We know that Nic Vos acts as nobly as he can.
The movie is littered with frivolous parallel scenes that demonstrate, in banal juxtaposition, the affluent Voses and the struggling Chamassos, but we already knew that the families live differently. The movie suffers greatest when the colonel brings the incarcerated Chamasso to eat Sunday dinner with the Vos family. There is no documentation that this actually occurred, and, as a purely fictional creation of the filmmakers, it serves no purpose but to inspire confusion. Perhaps Vos is indeed a compassionate man, but it is not feasible that he would take a prisoner under active investigation into his home to eat with his family. The scene does not ring true in the context of the movie or the portrayal of Vos’ character, and its inclusion as a method of striking a balance between Chamusso and Vos makes “Catch a Fire” wholly imbalanced.
The film is excellent in all other respects. Noyce has immense experience in representing oppression and desperation, and his cinematography delivers both exciting rapid-cut action and serene glimpses of South African terrain. Screenwriter Shawn Slovo has vested each scene with incredible emotion, and the sentiment is real — the film is dedicated to her father, Joe Slovo, who joined forces with the ANC and spent his life fighting for racial equality in South Africa. Luke gives an electrifying performance as the afflicted, and Robbins fulfills the requirements of his role both by resembling Jack Bauer and by never flinching.
Ultimately, though, “Catch a Fire” will not make a lasting impact upon its viewers. It raises a fascinating question and then ignores it, but the audience, contrary to the filmmakers’ expectation, can do nothing but dwell.