Patrick Chamusso's story is not one that had to be told, as there are certainly other tales of resistance and oppression that are just as inspirational and infuriating. Curious too is the setting of apartheid-torn South Africa in the early 1980s, which raises an issue that has been dormant for years and has little relevance to the problems facing the world today.
But Chamusso's gallant struggle (the film is based on a true story) is indeed the topic of Catch a Fire, an effective drama featuring wonderful performances from its leads and a balanced story that gives equal time to both sides of the issue of racial segregation.
In his finest performance to date, Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) plays Chamusso, an oil refinery foreman who is wrongly accused of a bombing at his factory in rural South Africa. He's subsequently arrested by Colonel Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), the head of an anti-terrorist unit who suspects Chamusso of being a member of the African National Congress (ANC), part of which contains a militaristic terrorist cell that is systematically attacking established institutions.
"South Africa belongs to all who live in it," the head of the ANC, Obadi (Tumisho K. Masha), says in an attempt to justify his group's actions. What's ironic is that Vos believes the same thing, and is trying to keep the country safe by stopping the ANC from harming others. That two people can have such fundamentally similar yet differing perspectives is startling, and a telling indication of why South African apartheid lasted for almost 50 years (it "officially" ended in 1994).
Luke is excellent as Chamusso, a flawed but likeable man who at heart wants only to protect his wife (Bonnie Henna) and family. His transition from an innocent victim to embittered warrior is stunning in its range and poignancy, and with his success here, he secures his place among the industry's best young actors. Robbins is also solid as the conflicted Vos, a family man who understands and empathizes with Chamusso--at one point even inviting Chamusso to his home for dinner--but must nonetheless treat him like a potentially dangerous criminal.
The film was directed by Phillip Noyce, who seems to have made political thrillers his forte: The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence (both 2002) were solid yet drastically different stories of humanity during inhumane times, and even his action pics Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) were motivated by political turmoil. Catch a Fire is probably his most accomplished drama to date, and his ability to fairly depict both sides of the struggle is something more agenda-driven directors should pay attention to.
The problem is that any connection to modern political issues is a stretch, leaving the film on its own as a drama, as opposed to one with contemporary political relevance (e.g. Good Night, and Good Luck). Yes, you could say there's a connection between the fight against terrorism in the film and the United States' current war on terror, but the circumstances surrounding apartheid in Africa date back so many years that such a correlation would be erroneous and misguided.
Fortunately, Catch a Fire is still a well-made, gut-wrenching drama that is bold enough to humanize both sides of a distressing situation. To see it is to learn of one man's struggle to find peace and protect his family, and even though he made mistakes along the way, his is still a story that can inspire people of all skin colors.
Catch a Fire (PG-13), directed by Phillip Noyce, starring Tim Robbins, Derek Luke, Bonnie Henna, Mncedisi Shabangu, Terry Pheto and playing at The Flicks through Nov. 9.