Director Phillip Noyce has always been politically charged; his big break was, after all, helming Patriot Games. But although his latest contains more than a few thrilling moments, it is a message-laden film far closer to the power of his 2002 award winner, Rabbit Proof Fence. Clear allusions to U.S. foreign policy pepper the true story of Patrick Chamusson and his journey to the South African militant group the African National Congress (ANC).
It is 1980 when we catch up with Chamusson (Derek Luke). He is a successful foreman at an oil refinery. Life is good for Patrick, his wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna), and their two daughters. But all is not well in South Africa. This is the age of apartheid, and apartheid brings with it inevitable (but ultimately necessary) terrorist attacks from the oppressed blacks of the nation. When the refinery where Patrick is employed becomes the target for terrorists who somehow gained entry to the locked facility, he becomes the prime suspect.
Unfortunately, Patrick is unable to disclose his alibi without also uncovering a past marital indiscretion, and so to protect Precious, he finds himself held captive and tortured for information. When he finally breaks, his story is too little, too late for chief investigator Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), and Precious is tortured. Eventually the couple are cleared and released, but this experience has so changed the previously apolitical Patrick that he abandons his family to join the rebel ANC and fight for his people's freedom.
Noyce manages to skillfully imbue this tale of political activism with a share of engaging entertainment, melding the style of his earlier films with the lessons of his more recent work. But the emphasis rightly remains on topic. A violent firefight between ANC terrorists and South African officials, for example, could have been shot as a thrilling and action-packed sequence akin to something from Black Hawk Down. But Noyce keeps the violence unsettling and even upsetting, not glamorizing or glorifying the painful situations that are his true subject.
The most obvious theme in Catch a Fire is the notion that fighting terrorism through unjust means ultimately creates new terrorists. In the story of Patrick Chamusson, we see how even an ordinary man who is only concerned with carving out a good life for his family can be pushed toward lawlessness. While comparisons to current U.S. policy are inevitable, the messages in Catch a Fire are muddied by an overabundance of well-intentioned humanizing.
The attempt to fully tell the tale of Chamusson, infidelity and all, adds unnecessary grays to the black-and-white issues at hand. Attempts to juxtapose the daily lives of Chamusson and Vos in a compelling fashion also accomplish little. A particular instance of cross-cutting between an ANC funeral and a commendation ceremony for Vos in recognition of killing the ANC members is a powerful trick, but ultimately it confuses the film's true intentions.
Nonetheless, the irony that Chamusson's first terrorist act is a plan to attack the very refinery he was falsely accused of bombing earlier in the film should not be lost on anyone. Catch a Fire also succeeds as an involving portrait of a real-life hero, with end credit interviews with Patrick Chamusson. Early in the film, a happier Precious plucks a beautiful flower from a barren hillside and asks her husband, "How can such a thing grow here?" As Catch a Fire successfully proves, ultimately it cannot.
'Catch a Fire' opens at theaters around the North Bay on Friday, Oct. 27.
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