South Africa, 1980.
Patrick (Derek Luke, "Antwone Fisher ", "Glory Road"), a young father with a wife and two children, lives in a small house with his mother. He is very happy and has a good job as a foreman at a local refinery. In his off hours, he coaches a ragtag group of children in football. One day, traveling back from a wedding, they are stopped and questioned regarding an explosion at some railroad tracks. Patrick wants nothing to do with politics, because he knows it will jeopardize his family and his job. Later, Patrick takes his football team to a match and they win, so he stays over with them to compete in the finals. That evening, another explosion occurs at the plant where he works. Nic Voss (Tim Robbins), the head of the anti-terrorist team, brings him in for questioning. The same evening, Patrick visits an old girlfriend and his illegitimate son, and then lies about it, making him a suspect. Unable to get anywhere, Voss and his team take Patrick's wife in and torture her as well. Then Patrick confesses, but Nick knows he isn't telling the truth and lets him go. Fed up, Patrick decides to join the ANC, the African National Congress, and travels to Mozambique to begin training. Voss is determined to squash this group and soon learns that Patrick has joined up.
"Catch a Fire", directed by Phillip Noyce ("Clear and Present Danger") is a very good film about the life of a real figure in the struggle for South Africa's independence from Apartheid.
Derek Luke is very, very good as Patrick Chamusso. Patrick is so intent on living his life with his family, trying to provide for them, make sure they are happy, that he doesn't pay attention to politics. He knows that if he is even suspected of participating in any political movement he could lose his job, his house and his family would have to struggle. He is very happy where he is in life. He has a job as a foreman at Secunda, a local refinery, which provides a house and a car for his family. He has everything he could want.
After attending a family wedding where he and his wife danced a lot, they are stopped at a roadblock and interrogated. The police throw Patrick to the ground in front of his wife, Precious, and their kids. A bomb was set off at a nearby railway station, so everyone is stopped. Naturally, because Patrick has a car and a nice camera, he is under suspicion. When they are eventually let go, Patrick doesn't think twice about it. He gets mad at his mother for listening to the political broadcasts on the radio. He wants to stay free and clear.
Then the football team he is coaching travels to a match and wins, prompting an overnight stay so they can play in the finals the next day. During that night, Patrick travels back to his home village and visits an old mistress and his illegitimate son. He speeds back in time to pick up the boys.
But during that evening, another explosion occurs and Patrick falls under suspicion because he lies about his whereabouts.
Luke brings a sense of happiness and complacency to the character. He is perfectly happy with his place in life; he doesn't want to make waves, even though the government can stop him and throw him to the ground for no reason. The fact that he has a mistress and an illegitimate child adds another level to his character. He seems so in love with Precious, yet she has a definite jealous edge to her. Then we learn Precious knows about the mistress, which explains her jealousy, but she doesn't learn of the child until much later, which colors her actions towards her husband.
Then, when Nic Vos (Robbins), the head of the Government's anti-terrorist unit takes him in for interrogation, everything changes. He doesn't know anything. Yet, they interrogate him and torture him. When he still won't make a statement, they leave him in his cell for a period of time. When they take him out, blindfolded, he is greeted by a surprise that changes his world. He is released, but he is no longer the wide eyed innocent he once was. He now realizes that nothing will get better until the people make it better.
Throughout all of this, Luke brings honesty to the role. Even when he is extolling the virtues of the current way of life, you can see a little doubt in his eyes. Then, when he changes, it is an abrupt change, but it works, because we have lived with him for a while now and feel like we know him. Bonnie Henna is also very good as Precious, Patrick's wife. From the moment we first meet them, we see how happy they are together. Then, when Patrick starts dancing with another woman, she sidles up to them and hits him on the head. Enough said. Later, after she is interrogated by Vos and his team, she has a dead look in her eyes and we know she will never be the same again.
Tim Robbins' performance is the most difficult to assimilate into our brains. At one point, Vos states "We are the minority, 3 million trying to control 25 million." The very fact the Boers thought this was an okay thing is mind boggling. They live in this country, using different bathrooms, facilities, keeping the native Blacks out of their sight. It sounds much like America during the 50s and 60s, but this story takes place in 1980. Their method of control was to create Apartheid.
Robbins' performance is very understated and initially seems a little strange. Vos is in charge, and does everything within his control to help the Boers maintain their lifestyle. Robbins is very convincing in his portrayal of this. Vos is never in doubt that the Boers should be in control and this makes him and the other members of the ruling class naturally frightening.
There are at least two scenes in which Vos and his family are enjoying a picnic among other white people. Vos pulls out a guitar and starts singing folk songs. This seems like a really overt attempt to make Vos seem sympathetic. Look at the man singing folk songs to his wife and children. How bad could he be? But I'm not sure this is the intended message. As he sings, he also reinforces how completely sure he is, and his people are, of their right to rule this country. Making him all the more menacing.
As his performance continued, I realized how menacing he is. His work brought to mind Kenneth Branagh's performance in "Rabbit Proof Fence". In each, the men are truly scary because they are so soft spoken. They are each truly convinced they are right and they should be doing what they are doing which makes them even more scary.
Robbins' performance is not as good as Branagh's; there aren't enough layers, but it is reminiscent.
"Catch A Fire" also raises a lot of questions similar to what we are currently dealing with. The actions of Vos and his men ultimately cause Patrick to turn to the path of becoming a revolutionary. Before this moment, he had no feelings for this and didn't want to jeopardize anything. But because Vos and his men treated Patrick like a piece of trash, they convinced him that his people have to do something to end the oppression. Many believe a similar situation is happening in the Middle East; the current actions of the United States are creating a new breed of terrorists.
"Catch A Fire" is an interesting, well done portrait of an instrumental figure in the fight to end Apartheid.