Catch a Fire: Noyce Meloramatic Biopic of Anti-Apartheid Hero of Patrick Chamusso

Wearing its heart and politics on its sleeves, Phillip Noyce’s “Catch a Fire” is a reasonably compelling (but no more) account of Patrick Chamusso, South Africa’s anti-Apartheid hero and his life-risking adventurous journey to political freedom and higher personal awareness.

The Aussie director Noyce, who first made an impression in Hollywood with big, impersonal, and frivolous actioners and thrillers (“Clear and Present Danger”), continues his own personal journey into socially relevant cinema after the moderate success of his last two political films, “The Quiet American” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence.”

Though not as powerful, “Catch a Fire” is actually more in the mold of “Hotel Rwanda,” about the 1990s genocide all but ignored by the Western world. That 2004 film benefited from critical acclaim and Oscar nominations that might evade Noyce’s new film. A lot has happened in American film since 2004. Over the past two years, American cinema has become much more politically charged and ideologically loaded with both fictional and non-fictional films. The danger is, “Catch a Fire” will get lost in the upcoming fall season, which looks very strong, at least on paper.

Moreover, since Noyce’s political thriller takes place during the countrys turbulent and divided times in the early 1980s, it begs the question of why tell the story now, a generation after the events.

In the press notes, Noyce claims that his Apartheid story is just as relevant to our times as it was in the 1980s, but though American viewers seem to be more receptive of explicitly political films in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War, I doubt that many will see his picture as timely as he does.

Further problem is the saga’s straightforward and borderline simplistic approach, which also marked “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” though not “The Quiet American.”

With all the admiration for tackling this particular subject matter and for Noyce’s considerable filmmaking skills, “Catch a Fire” is the kind of message film in which what you see is what you get. More plot than character-driven, the film lacks nuance and subtlety. There is not much for the audience to do but be outraged and then nod with agreement and sympathy with Chamusso’s predicament.

Derek Luke portrays real-life hero Patrick Chamusso, a charming and loving husband to his wife Precious (Bonnie Henna), and a caring father to his two young daughters. He works as a foreman at the centrally located Secunda oil refinery, which is a symbol of South Africas self-sufficiency at a time when the world was protesting the country’s oppressive Apartheid system. In his spare time, Patrick coaches a local boys soccer team. Initially, carefully toeing the hard line imposed on over 20 million blacks by Apartheid’s small but powerful white minority, Chamusso is completely apolitical.

Very much a tale of two men, the film posits a second major character, Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a Colonel in the countrys Police Security Branch. The shrewd and charismatic Vos strives to maintain order in volatile situations, which have become more and more frequent as the outlawed activist organization African National Congress (ANC) rallies blacks against apartheid.

Vos is also concerned for the safety of his wife and two daughters. In the first reels, Noyce is effective in contrasting the lifestyle of the two men, showing how Vos and his family live a world apart from the Chamusso and his clan.

Thing change when the innocent Chamusso comes under suspicion and is arrested, in June 1980, for sabotage of the Secunda oil refinery. His alibi is compromised, and he is desperate to shield Precious from a past indiscretion and keep his job.

But Chamusso is ill-prepared to withstand brutal interrogations by Voss men. As Vos further insinuates himself into the lives of the Chamussos, to Patricks shock and shame, Precious herself is jailed and tortured. Although he and Precious are soon released from custody, Chamusso is stunned into action, which completely reorients his sense of self and purpose.

Undergoing a moral-ideological odyssey, with a newly regained consciousness, Chamusso leaves his family to join up with the ANC. As a rebel fighter and political operative, he is further radicalized on behalf of his people and his country. He ultimately envisions a formidable and dangerous follow-up strike against the Secunda refinery, risking his own life and future, based on his belief that change must–and will come–for him, his family, and South Africa itself.

As expected from a Noyce work, production values, particularly cinematography and music, are very strong, lending desirable authenticity to the tale. The acting, in contrast is just decent, and while Derek Luke is persuasive in the lead, Tim Robbins, in an effort to “humanize” his character so that he won’t come across as a one-dimensional villain, is rather tame.

The story behind “Catch a Fire” is just as interesting as the one unfolding on screen. One of the film’s producers is Robyn Slovo, and the screenplay is written by her sister, Shawn Slovo. They are daughters of Joe Slovo, head of the South African Communist Party and one of the two white members of the ANC executive council, and Ruth First, an activist who was assassinated by a parcel bomb in Mozambick in 1982.

In 1988, Shawn Slovo wrote an autobiographical screenplay about her parents that served as the basis for Chris Menges’ “A World Apart,” a more resonant and complex picture than “Catch a Fire.” Timing is crucial: “A World Apart” was released while the oppressive Apartheid was still very much around, whereas “Catch a Fire” feels like a period political piece, and thus lacks immediacy.

The question is to what extent the marketing department of the savvy Focus Features, which last year made the wonderful political thriller “The Constant Gardener,” can convince the current generation of moviegoers that “Catch a Fire” is a must-see film relevant to our zeitgeist.