Catch a Fire lacks the spark needed to ignite

by Beacon Staff • October 25, 2006

Under apartheid in South Africa, three million white Afrikaners dominated over the 25 million Africans who were pushed to the outer edges of their own country. Apartheid paralleled the black segregation in America, yet it did not bother with the pretense of "separate but equal." It lasted until the African Nation Congress (ANC) was formed in the 1980s.

Catch a Fire picks up here and tells the true story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a na've young African who wants nothing to do with the dangerous political atmosphere of apartheid. He watches as his friends get pulled from their houses by anti-terrorist squads and knows that breathing a word of dissent will only get him tortured or killed. He spends his time coaching a boys' soccer team and working late hours at the Secunda oil refinery. His wife, Precious, and his two daughters adore him and the town knows him as a good and consistently apolitical family man.

Luke plays Patrick with a puppy dog grin: he smiles and laughs, making it clear that he has no intention to face the truth of his situation. This reality, however, hits him hard when he is wrongfully accused of blowing up a power plant at the refinery.

Despite Patrick's plea of innocence, Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a colonel of the Security Police force, is convinced of his guilt and has him brutally tortured. What follows is a realization scene that begs Luke to display some serious acting.

Until this moment, Catch A Fire has a difficult time igniting. Director Phillip Noyce overemphasizes Patrick's philanthropy and saturates his captivity with unnecessary sentimentality. The audience does not need a swelling musical score to know that Patrick is a victim of a corrupt regime. Blunt and impersonal direction on Noyce's part would have produced a more resonant and unforced sympathy.

When Patrick discovers a personally devastating fact, however, the effect is overwhelming. This is mainly because Noyce pulls back and allows the scene to unfold naturally. Patrick, weeping, runs up to the cell mirror and screams at the colonel, "How are you a man to allow something like this? You are not a man!" Patrick, however, can only see his own reflection when he yells this; he is shouting at himself.

The film never reaches this level of dramatic intensity again and neither does Luke's performance. Instead, the second half is a well-executed but perplexing narrative that follows Patrick as he joins the ANC and becomes what the white Afrikaners call "a terrorist."

In an interview with The Beacon, Noyce was asked if he believed that the ANC was, in modern terms, a terrorist group.

"I wouldn't call it terrorism. The situation in South Africa was not painted like terrorism today. It was a defined struggle for freedom and the relationship between the opposing forces was clearly defined: the colonial powers versus the indigenous race."

Shawn Slovo, the screenwriter of Catch a Fire added, "I want to stress that this situation is nothing like the situation in the Middle East. You cannot make a parallel between the two."

In these times, though, how can one not draw a parallel between the two? Catch a Fire explores Patrick's transformation from calm pacifist to radical reformer and the audience is meant to empathize with his actions. And it is easy to, because history proves that the ANC ended up being a revolutionary group that saved South Africa. However, while watching Patrick and a group of committed rebels screaming "We will kill the white man with our AK-47s!" one cannot help but feel a chill of relevancy with our current global predicament.

Thus, there is something inherently inappropriate about Catch a Fire's message. In recent years, insurgency has been associated with harm and destruction, not liberation. This is unfortunate, because both Slovo and Noyce have created an earnest film where plenty can be admired.

The director executes riveting action sequences with fantastic moments of peril. In one scene, the ANC is ambushed by the Security Police, while Bob Marley's "Could You Be Loved" floats ironically over the blasts of machine guns.

In the acting department, Luke and Bonnie Henna exhibit fine performances as the conflicted lovers. Henna, in particular, does a wonderful job playing a victimized woman who is abused by interrogators and then abandoned by her husband.

Tim Robbins, in a role that echoes the sadism of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, holds the screen with commanding presence as the hateful anti-terrorism colonel. He delivers the best performance of the film.

Ironically, Catch a Fire is a movie that falters because of its political awareness. In focusing on the ANC rebellion, it is negating the current issue of terrorism and remaining strictly a period drama. This would work if Catch a Fire stood out as an exceptional work of cinema. It's effective, but in the end, Noyce has done better.