There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Director Phillip Noyce hops from the 1930s Australia of Rabbit-Proof Fence to apartheid-era South Africa for this mostly true story, but he downplays the emotional depth and political resonance of his more thoughtful work in favor of thriller-style exposition more akin to his Tom Clancy adaptations, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Apolitical black oil-refinery foreman Patrick Chamusso (Antwone Fisher star Derek Luke) is determined to avoid trouble and attain the modestly affluent lifestyle that wife Precious (Bonnie Henna) so desires; he won’t even let his mother-in-law listen to African National Congress (ANC) radio broadcasts from nearby Mozambique. Yet after an explosion at the complex where he works, Patrick is arrested and can’t provide a convincing alibi. (He doesn’t want to admit he was with a woman other than his wife.) He endures savage beatings under the indirect supervision of Afrikaaner security police Col. Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), who plays the soft-spoken “good cop” role and even has Patrick to his house for lunch. Finally, Vos shows Patrick that Precious has been tortured, which causes the prisoner to crack, admitting to a crime he didn’t commit. Vos recognizes that the confession is bogus and sets Patrick free. But where can he go after being confronted by the evil that he’s painstakingly ignored all his life? Patrick travels to Mozambique, trains with ANC fighters, and returns with plans to bomb the refinery. Although written by Shawn Slovo (A World Apart), whose father Joe helped instruct the real Chamusso as a resistance fighter, the film emphasizes plot over politics, and tries—not altogether successfully—to understand Vos’ pro-apartheid worldview. The result is a taut mainstream movie that, despite the graphic torture scenes, seems a little soft on its own central conflict. Treating apartheid more as a narrative premise than a moral abomination, Catch a Fire relies heavily on Bob Marley tunes and South African “freedom songs” to cover its lack of righteous passion.—Mark Jenkins