“We’re considered by some people to be a damned nation.” Uttered over the radio early in Catch a Fire, this assessment of Botha’s South Africa sounds about right now, looking back. While those in control twisted logic and lives in order to maintain their positions, the righteousness of the rebels is undeniable now. Looking back, it appears that the only question is how apartheid stood for so long.
Actually, Phillip Noyce’s thriller does raise another question: how have the South African “terrorists,” so deemed by Botha’s administration, since become courageous freedom fighters? Here that deeming administration is embodied by Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), chief of an anti-terrorist team. Sure of his cause and determined to “secure” his homeland, Nic looks awfully like the increasingly very-scary anti-terrorists of today. However extreme his methods, he knows his ends are correct. He must protect his family — two pretty daughters (Jessica Anstey and Charlotte Savage) and a blond wife (Michele Burgers) — from odious forces.
These forces are manifest for Nic in the black bodies that seem ever on the verge of being out of control. Catch a Fire begins at this verge, as the Secunda oil refinery is targeted by terrorists, a bomb designed not to kill workers but to disrupt production and get attention. Vos and his men comb the crime scene for clues, their outrage leading to ferocious crackdowns on anyone remotely associated with the site or lacking an indisputable alibi. Among the many men picked up for interrogation is Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a foreman at Secunda whom the investigators presume is yet another “cheeky kaffir.” Though Patrick professes no “politics,” even urging his coworkers to keep quiet about their interests in same, he’s suddenly a prime suspect, owing to a night he’s spent away from home and can’t explain.
Patrick has his own family, also two daughters and a perfect wife, Precious (Bonnie Henna). She sees the government men’s invasion of their home as part of a familiar, endless system of intimidation and oppression, not imagining at first the extent of her life’s disruption. Nic maintains an unnervingly quiet demeanor, pressuring Precious to distrust her husband, finding weak points in their marriage that might be exploited in order to extract a confession from Patrick, whom he reads as a terrorist. That you know otherwise — having seen Patrick’s inclination to go along, enduring indignities in order to survive — only makes Nic’s psychological and physical abuses seem more sinister.
Nic’s own sense of moral outrage is figured in a couple of scenes. At one point, he brings Patrick home for dinner, tension palpable at the table, as his children and wife look on, their black servants hovering in the background. Patrick’s face is bruised, his body unspeakably tense, and Nic holds forth on Precious “She’s got class, man”), his tone baleful even as his words seem trivial. While Nic here inflicts a particular aggression against his “guest” — deploying his family as audience to his cruelty — another sort of violence takes place in his home, but off screen. Though he spends more and more time on his job, Nic rushes home upon hearing that it has been “invaded” by a presumed terrorist, causing one of his daughters to fire her weapon (it’s a particular cruelty that it is the daughter who resisted learning to shoot who has done so). As she cries, Nic’s face is set in a bleak display of certainty: he’s doing the right thing by suppressing insurgents, he knows, he’s protecting his own.
Patrick is moved to action by a similar sense of menace, though he hardly has the same recourse. Where Nic’s resolve leads him to torture Patrick and, in an especially awful decision, to use Patrick’s wife as an object lesson in proper submission, Patrick recognizes at last not only his personal losses (which are profound), but also apartheid’s systemic hopelessness. He decides, at last, to become the enemy he never was, training in Mozambique with a coterie of other appalled, despairing, and increasingly mobilized ANC fighters. The camera closes on their hardening bodies and grim faces as they train, chant, and focus. Each is assigned a new name — Patrick, owing to his suggestions concerning tactical explosives at the refinery, becomes “Hot Stuff.” Marching in rhythm to the question, “Are you ready to die?”, they pronounce their ready answer. They too must protect their own.
Catch a Fire is sincere and suitably painful, with its doubled focus on Patrick’s transition (based on a true story, with Chamusso appearing with Luke during the closing credits) and Nic’s descent into doubt illustrating the ways that such stories and fates are inextricably intertwined. One recurring image is especially haunting, as Nic watches his victim/villain in his cell by way of a monitor: “What kind of a man are you?” asks Patrick, his face agonized and bewildered. That would be the central question for all involved, those deemed terrorists and those who see themselves as anti.
Today’s context complicates such “deeming.” While Nic imagines his cause to be correct, the movie judges him for precisely such conviction. Many years after their initial confrontation (and Patrick’s incarceration in the prison that also housed Nelson Mandela), Nic appears as an object of Patrick’s gaze, an old man, broken and alone. The sighting allows another, unnecessary instance of Patrick’s moral superiority, part of an awkward quick-trot through recent history to remind viewers of the eventual fate of apartheid and, by allusion only, the crucial work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Specifically, you might recall by way of Patrick’s non-violence in this scene and his own life’s turns (the film notes that the real life Chamusso now runs a home for some 80 orphans) that the Commission rejected the concept of vengeance, and instead sought a means to move on. While this “political thriller” features plenty of action and reaction, it also leads to a kind of transcendent and yet also immediate, very earthly peace, as Derek Luke and Patrick Chamusso share the screen under the closing credits. It’s almost a strange moment, and yet its strangeness dislocates the pretty coherence of the movie’s plot, gesturing toward an unlikely reconciliation of fiction and fact, hope and possibility. Surely, such reconciliation lies beyond those deemed “terrorists” today. But the film does imagine it, briefly and outside its own story of a “damned nation.”