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Fatalistic Fire

Movies | Apartheid film shows good but flawed men who are shaped by their fate

Issue: "Iraq and terrorism," Nov. 11, 2006

The credits at the end of Catch a Fire (PG-13 for violence and several obscenities) conclude with a disclaimer: The film, while "based on a true story," contains fictional characters, dialogue, and scenes.

Given the film's politically inflammatory setting (1980s South Africa under apartheid), the disclaimer would seem to serve as a warning both to activists who would see the film as a justification for terrorism and to viewers inclined to swallow dramatized historical distortions whole. The problem is, the disclaimer appears after everyone has left the theater.

In fact, because the film's real-life protagonist (Patrick Chamusso) appears in a coda describing the orphanage that he and his wife now run for South African children whose parents have died of AIDS, and because the film was written by Shawn Slovo, the daughter of an African National Congress leader depicted in the film, director Phillip Noyce seems to insist that the film be taken at documentary face value.

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For its first 90 minutes or so, however, Catch a Fire works well both as a political thriller and as a study of good but flawed men under immense pressures that force them to choose, sometimes unsuccessfully, the lesser of two evils.

Tim Robbins portrays the anti-terrorism officer Nic Vos as a devoted father and husband who, while countenancing torture as a means of extracting confessions and murder as a means of preemptive warfare, can also spare innocent suspects even when it's in his power and best professional interests to convict them. He's good at his job but doesn't enjoy it much because he knows that apartheid's days are numbered and therefore sees himself as fighting a losing battle.

Derek Luke is similarly adept at conveying Chamusso's gradual and grudging descent into the ANC underground. Apolitically content with the rewards of accepting his lot, he turns radical when he and his wife Precious (Bonnie Mbuli) become innocent victims of (white) police brutality that he has previously ignored lest he draw attention to himself.

He has, after all, a lot to lose. Besides his wife, he has children, a house, a car, and a secure job as an oil-refinery foreman. He also coaches a local boys' soccer team with championship potential and clearly enjoys providing his players with discipline and purpose. It is when he concludes that his "good" behavior is no guarantor of either his or his family's safety that his reasons for not joining the ANC vanish.

The theme that emerges is that we are shaped by, and therefore have little control over, our fate, and that sometimes vengeance is ours. When the real-life Chamusso appears, however, he insists that only when he abandoned revenge and learned to forgive was he "free," thus adding an aesthetically dissonant if encouraging note to a film that tries to be one too many things for its own artistic good.

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