“Catch a Fire” opens with force – images of apartheid, marches and beatings. Clear signs of oppression set us up for a movie that increases in power and captivation as the story progresses. Yet surprisingly, in its impartiality “Catch a Fire” leaves a sense of ambiguity as to how we are supposed to judge the actions of those involved.
“Catch a Fire” follows the true story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a family man and foreman at a large oil refinery, who becomes inextricably involved in the struggle for South African freedom despite his normally peaceful demeanor. After his plant is broken into, he is tortured for information by Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a colonel in the police force. Despite Patrick’s innocence, he and his wife are beaten and abused. Once he is finally released, he faces a crucial decision: should he forget the evils committed against him by Nic Vos, and try to resume his life, or should he take up the fight to end apartheid and join the militant ANC? As the title suggests, Patrick chooses the latter, with dramatic implications for both his family and his life.
“Catch a Fire” succeeds above all else in its humanity. Because it tells the story of apartheid from an everyman viewpoint, the audience gets drawn into the struggle, and strong acting allows for the humanity of the struggle to shine through. Battles aren’t victimless. They’re fought on both sides by individual people with families and goals.
Nic Vos throws people around and watches them get tortured, but we never see him as evil. He lucidly predicts that despite his best efforts apartheid will end eventually, yet he works to protect his family and the order he vowed his allegiance to. As such, “Catch a Fire” poses the South African fight to end apartheid in a very interesting light – Chamusso’s struggle seems just, and he seems correct in choosing to become the person Nic Vos incorrectly assumed him to be at the film’s outset. Yet in failing to morally identify a culprit, “Catch a Fire” sends a mixed signal as a movie about political oppression. Nic Vos is not an immoral person; he is merely fighting to protect a status quo that involves the protection of his family.
This moral ambiguity does not cripplingly detract from the telling of the story on a character level, but it does impede the message of the film on a political level. We are shown that Patrick is an apolitical person who becomes caught in a struggle he had no political stake in – because he was abused. Thus, it would seem that a message of the film is that terror breeds terrorism, in the sense that Patrick becomes what Nic Vos wanted to prevent. Terrorism is a hot topic, and so a movie about oppression causing innocent people to attempt to destroy buildings in protest would seem like a subtle political attack, a historical lesson about the relativity of blame. Yet Director Phillip Noyce said such an interpretation was not intended. This is for good reason – he wants to portray the South African conflict in its own right, tell the story as it hasn’t been told, and leave it as a tribute to the bravery of Chamusso and his compatriots.
In this respect “Catch a Fire” fails. By humanizing Nic Vos, Robbins confuses the sense of rightful struggle. Noyce tries to “have his cake and eat it too,” by ending with a modernist message of getting along peacefully, and in doing so he undercuts the validity of his attempted meaning, skewing it towards an ambiguity of blame that sends a message he doesn’t want sent.
Despite its failings, “Catch a Fire” does succeed as a tense character-driven drama. It is well scripted, acted, and shot. Derek Luke delivers a powerful and captivating performance, and this redeems some of the problems with moral ambiguity. “Catch a Fire” tells us that when the dust settles, everyone has some dirt on their hands. We shouldn’t worry about who has more dirt – we need to figure out a way to clean it off.