By strange coincidence, I went to see Catch a Fire only day after having the great privilege of seeing The Battle of Algiers on the big screen at the Harvard Film Archive, something that I wouldn’t mention if not for the thematic similarity of the two films: like Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, Catch a Fire is very much concerned with the questions of whether or not terrorism is ever justified and to what lengths it is acceptable for a government to go to in order to preserve itself. And, until the film’s last few minutes, it is a thought-provokingly complex examination of its subject.
Catch a Fire is set in apartheid South Africa, and opens with a montage of radio voiceovers setting the stage for the film. Shortly, it focuses in on its main character, Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a foreman at the Secunda power plant and loving husband and father. Chamusso disapproves strongly of the terrorist actions of the African National Congress, and concentrates his energy on doing his job and providing for his family. One day, however, as Chamusso is driving himself and his young soccer team back into Secunda, there is an explosion at the power plant; by a bizarre set of unfortunate coincidences and circumstances Chamusso is implicated in the plot and arrested. After a long period in which he is kept prisoner and tortured for information, his captor, South African anti-terrorism policeman Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), realizes that he is telling the truth and lets him go. The experience, however, enrages Chamusso, and he goes to become in truth what the police had incorrectly thought him to be: a terrorist and a member of the African National Congress.
Derek Luke as Chamusso gives what is easily his best performance to date – his transformation from affable bystander to enraged revolutionary is absolutely believable, and he brings an intensity to the role that makes Chamusso both sympathetic and charismatic. He is well-complemented by Bonnie Henna as Precious Chamusso, the wife of Patrick Chamusso, who gives a strong but uninspired performance. Tim Robbins, though, seemingly overlooked for Luke’s performance in this, is really the soul of the movie: his performance as Vos creates a character that is alternately despicable and thoroughly sympathetic. Seeing him with his family at times adds greatly to the success of the movie. It would have been easy for director Philip Noyce to turn Catch a Fire into a black-and-white anti-apartheid morality play and turn Vos into nothing but a cardboard villain. Robbins’s superbly subtle performance, though, prevents this from happening, and Vos instead becomes a tragically human character, someone who is trying to do his job well and believes absolutely that what he does is right. This portrayal, in fact, may be what is most chilling about Catch a Fire, which succeeds very well in portraying the moral ambiguity of the situation up until the final five minutes.
Catch a Fire is a good movie, but not a great one, and it is certainly not Friday-evening entertainment, but it is one of the best, most thought-provoking movies that I have seen this year. The ending is weak, yes, but the performances from the two leads are excellent, and the movie gains a great deal by avoiding taking sides. I would recommend going to see The Battle of Algiers first, but Catch a Fire is no poor substitute.
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