Take Two

by Luke Bumgarten & r & & r & Catch a Fire & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he transition from complacency to action is a fairly common thing in everyday life, but it's disproportionately used in a heroic context for the movies. Girl gets kidnapped, hero springs to action. A far more common transition in response to crisis -- one that's so unsexy as to be a cinematic death knell -- is the move from complacency to activism.

Though it's far from a perfect film, Catch a Fire tracks the impulse toward activism admirably. Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) is a young black South African working dutifully in a fuel plant during the depths of apartheid and during the height of the African National Congress' struggle. He's a crew foreman, he has a gorgeous wife and a nice little life. While affluent compared to his black neighbors, he'd still be dirt-poor in comparison to the ruling Afrikaners and other non-native whites.

A freak sick day that coincides with an explosion at his plant puts Patrick in the crosshairs of Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), an Afrikaner counter-terrorism agent investigating the incident. With little more to go on than that, Vos subjects Patrick to a brutal interrogation involving all sorts of Geneva-banned practices. (Sound familiar?) When it's clear that no amount of personal bodily harm will make Patrick confess (to a crime he knows nothing about), Vos throws him blindfolded into a room where he feels around until he finds his badly beaten wife huddled in a corner. At that point, he becomes a freedom fighter and the film writes itself.

Chamusso and his family experienced terrible injustice; they deserve our compassion. In contrast, however, Catch a Fire points out that the Afrikaners were ruling amid a sea of black faces. It doesn't, in any case, excuse the continuation of institutionalized racism that the descendants of a regime don't know how to fix things. But when you look into young Marie Vos' eyes after she's forced to kill an intruder in her home, you understand instinctively why violence begets more violence -- and why oppressive regimes often become prisoners within their own fortresses.

Once Chamusso becomes an agent of the ANC, he is -- in the eyes of the ruling party, at least -- a terrorist. There's a lesson to be learned there about the force of a people's will, the liquidity of power and how ultimately trivial such loaded words as "terrorist" are. So, though any parallel to the current state of American foreign policy is left to the viewer, the parallel exists.

Nic Vos is a man consumed by fear. It's his fear, more than his prejudice or hatred, that allows him the moral drift necessary to torture people who are merely suspected of having committed crimes. Fear causes men to do terrifying, inhuman things they would normally dismiss as barbaric. It makes mankind blind and deaf to the humanity of those whom we regard as threats. And all of that makes us incredibly dangerous to those whom we fear.

The violence of a fear-monger like Nick Vos makes him a deep and perpetual danger to his country. That cautionary tale -- more than the struggles and redemption of Patrick Chamusso -- is the story Catch a Fire needed to tell, and it did.