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October 27, 2006 |

By Miscellaneous | Film | October 27, 2006 |

Like seemingly every new movie not starring Jennifer Aniston, Catch a Fire is based on a disturbing true story. This time it’s that of Patrick Chamusso, a black foreman at a South African oil refinery who in 1980 was falsely accused of planting a bomb that destroyed part of the refinery. The irony is that Chamusso was South Africa’s least likely revolutionary, happy to toe the line and accept whatever crumbs the ruling whites would allow him to catch, but the incarceration and torture he suffered — and especially the torture of his wife — brought out the latent revolutionary in him. He moved to Mozambique, joined the anti-apartheid African National Congress, and returned to the refinery to commit the very crime for which he had been falsely accused.

Catch a Fire was written by Shawn Slovo, whose father, Joe Slovo, was among the leading white South African anti-apartheid activists. The senior Slovo was the head of the ANC’s special ops unit and helped to plan Chamusso’s sabotage on the refinery; it was he who originally planted the idea for the film, many years ago. Slovo’s script has the insight and complexity you’d expect of an insider, showing both Chamusso’s bravery and his moral flaws, but its structure is that of a thriller, with Chamusso (Derek Luke) the mouse to very wily cat, Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins) of the South African Security Branch’s anti-terrorist squad. Chamusso is a familiar archetype — the ordinary man driven by circumstance to extraordinary acts — but at no point does Luke allow his performance to become pedestrian; his Chamusso is complicated, passionate, and not entirely likable. An even more ambivalent sort is cold, clever Vos, who has the foresight to see that apartheid will soon fall but only pities his fellow whites for the privilege they’ll lose, and vacillates between such extremes of Good Cop and Bad Cop that it’s impossible to get a read on his true nature.

In some ways, though, the individual characters are almost beside the point: Catch a Fire is the rare film in which the abstract ideas play as large a role as the action. At a time when terrorism and prisoner abuse are the stuff of each morning’s newspaper, it examines a scenario very different from our current one, in which the terrorists are unquestionably in the right and the government’s anti-terrorist forces not only employ indefensible methods but do so in support of an indefensible regime. The evils of apartheid were so insidious, the film tells us, that even the most innocent citizens of South Africa became tainted by them, as when Vos’ pacifist daughter shoots an ANC revolutionary in self-defense.

If this all sounds a bit Manichean and over-earnest, well, it is. Apartheid is like the Holocaust — one of the rare real-world events that can be seen entirely in simplistic terms of Good and Evil and for which true dramatic complexity is almost impossible to achieve. Slovo and the director, Philip Noyce, struggle manfully to overcome this obstacle, making complex characters like Chamusso and Vos the representatives of revolution and apartheid. Yet the central situation is such a basic, familiar one and the outcome is so predictable (and completely revealed in the film’s trailer) that the film, for me at least, never becomes fully engaging. I admired the performances of Luke, Robbins, and the supporting cast; the cinematography is both handsome and lively; and many elements of South African life, such as the chanting of protesters during toyi-toyi, are used with beauty and expressiveness. Yet never did I feel the full moral urgency of Chamusso’s struggle or the complex set of motives driving Vos; it all remained a bit distant for me. Perhaps this fire is one I’ve just seen burn too many times.

Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]


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