Catch a Fire (review)

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No Sympathy for the Devil

Fears of terrorism. Demonization of an “other.” Suspects detained without explanation, held in isolation, with no access to lawyers. No, it’s not American policy in 2006, it’s South Africa in 1980, and boy, does it burn to see this true tale of torture and oppression, of radicalization and rebellion from a regime so malevolent, even pathological, play like an object lesson for us today here in the United States. It’s enough to shock you into realizing — if you haven’t already — how unkindly the future is going to look back upon us. When someone makes a movie, a quarter of a century from now, about the American occupation of Iraq, it’s going to look like Catch a Fire, and it’s going to be enraging.
How does an innocent man with no thought of committing a crime get turned into an insurgent, a “terrorist”? For Patrick Chamusso, it happens when he’s arrested after a bombing at the coal mine at which he is a supervisor — we know he had nothing to do with it, we know he was elsewhere at the time, but his alibi, for all its truth, is shaky, and the white South African police, and in particular antiterrorism specialist Nic Vos, are disinclined to believe him anyway. He is tortured, in more ways than one, until Vos is convinced that he had nothing to do with the bombing. He’s free, but Patrick’s life is ruined: Vos’s mistrust has infected Patrick’s wife, and even more importantly, Patrick’s complacency is shattered. Where once he was willing to smooth over the injustices of his world, now he has, well, caught the fire of revolt. He joins the African National Congress — freedom fighters to some, terrorists to others — and becomes preciously what Vos had feared he was.

It’s fear, of course, at the root of the social and political disaster of South Africa at the time — much is made, in the script by Shawn Slovo, daughter of one of the (white) leaders of the ANC, of the inevitability of the eventual overthrown of the white minority by the black majority. Vos is the first one to mention this in the film, in fact, and — as played by Tim Robbins; I’ve never heard him do an accent before, but he pulls off the Afrikaans beautifully, to my ear — he is a man driven by fear. He’s not quite the sociopath his colleagues are — while they would have been content to decide that Chamusso was the terrorist they were looking for when they arrested him, just for the sheer thrill of hanging a black man, any black man, Vos is at least concerned with getting the real perpetrator off the streets. But that doesn’t spring from a sense of justice but from a genuine terror for his family — he’s trying to put off as long as possible the inevitable loss of the extraordinary privilege his family enjoys at the expense of others who are increasingly angry themselves about this upside-side state. Robbins (War of the Worlds, Code 46) swaggers as Vos, but lets us see how shaky his confidence is. And yet there is no compassion, on the part of Slovo or director Phillip Noyce — whose Rabbit-Proof Fence a few years ago was another startling film about rebellion against howling injustice — and there is no excuse offered for Vos. And he is, thank the gods of satisfying storytelling (if not those that may watch over the real world), stubbornly unrepetent till the end; he gets no reprieve, undergoes no Hollywood change of heart.

The film belongs to Derek Luke, though, as Chamusso. The physical torture he suffers is nothing to what he endures emotionally and psychologically, as he barrels through multiple realignments of his worldview, and Luke (Friday Night Lights, Antwone Fisher) brings a power both fragile and heartrending to this man forces to confront demons both internal and external that he would likely have continued tiptoeing around his entire life. And the place at which he ends up… I don’t want to give away the ending, but if you know anything about how postapartheid South Africa has dealt with the crimes of the past, how the nation has attempted to heal and move on, then you’ll have a hint of stunning force of the seemingly unpretentious attitude that suffuses Chamusso by the end (one that an onscreen appearance by the real Chamusso only amplifies).

If there’s a message to Catch a Fire, it might be: Oppressors and occupiers beware, and know that whatever you dish out will come back to you threefold. It leaves you wondering, to know how the white minority has fared in South Africa after apartheid, whether the people of Iraq will ever feel the same way about America.

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Sat, Oct 28, 2006 4:13pm

MaryAnn Johanson, the reviewer of this movie, describes herself as “geek goddess, film critic, and Generation Xer…a writer and ponderer in New York City who drinks too much wine and thinks way too much about such inconsequences as…”

Suggest she pack her bags, leave her foppish little NYC enclave and spend some time with the evil, torturing occupiers of Iraq, also known to her as “American Soldiers” and see firsthand who is visiting evil upon the innocents of the Middle East. And though there have been, and always will be, a few examples of soliders acting criminally in conflict, 99.99% of the most bloodcurdling torture and brutality our little geek goddess could ever imagine has not come at the hand of the American Soldier, it’s been committed in the name of Allah by thousands of Iraqis.

And while this truth is blatantly obvious, it does not comport with her NYC sense and sensibility, she has a compulsive need to see American Soldiers getting killed and maimed in the battle against bomb-throwing, deacpitating, animalistic terrorists
as the moral equivalent of South African torturers.

In summary, MaryAnn, take a trip. See the world, see Iraq, visit the families of US Soldiers who died in the war against real terror, then apologize to every American who wears a uniform in Iraq, you are a disgrace to freedom, courage and freedom loving people everywhere.

Ed Y.
Ed Y.
Sun, Oct 29, 2006 3:07pm

I see. So those soldiers who posed next to dead Iraqis smiling and giving thumbs up were not Americans?

I’m sure there are plenty of people out there outraged by this film. They’re probably accusing this film of slandering the brave men and women of the old South African Police and Defence Forces while ignoring the misdeeds of the “bomb-throwing, necklacing, animalistic terrorists” of the ANC.

Once Mr. Brown said “this truth is blantantly obvious”, it became blantantly obvious that “the truth” is the last thing he knows!

Mon, Oct 30, 2006 6:57am

“visit the families of US Soldiers who died in the war against real terror,”

The U.S. invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism, except in the false justifications of our so-called leaders. If Iraq is now a hotbed of terrorism, it is because we have turned it into one.

And just an FYI: the foppish little NYC enclave I live in is called The Bronx.

Peter Connolly
Peter Connolly
Sun, Nov 05, 2006 10:21pm

For me this movie has just one message: the ends never ever, ever justify the means. They simply perpetuate the “Ends”.

Faced with the often posed moral dilemma that torturing just one terrorist could save a dozen hostages you’d better hope a vigilantly comes along to kidnap and torture the terrorist or that the hostages are left to their fate. Once the state crosses the line and resorts to the expediency of torture rather than the rule of law there is no turning back and no citizen is safe. This is why throughout the western world today opinion polls consistently show it is not Iraq; Iran or Pakistan people fear the most but the USA.