A political thriller: the real-life story of a South African hero's journey to freedom. In the country's turbulent and divided times in the 1980s, Patrick Chamusso is an oil refinery foreman and soccer coach who is apolitical - until he and his wife Precious are jailed. Patrick is stunned into action against the country's oppressive reigning system, even as police Colonel Nic Vos further insinuates himself into the Chamussos' lives. Written by
With Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American and now Catch A Fire to his credit in succession, Phillip Noyce appears to be leaving the blockbuster action movies behind and moving into the realm of serious but still mainstream cinema. These are all very proficient films with interesting stories that contain relevant social and political messages. It is noteworthy that the three are all based on historical facts.
This style of film-making is much more interesting than films like Syriana or (especially) The Constant Gardener. In those, the director appears to make a show of promoting a worthy world view, but doesn't really seem committed to the political cause. It felt gratuitous, the director simply exploiting our interest in political conspiracies without necessarily sharing that interest. Whatever it takes to get bums on seats.
It is a difficult balance for a director. You want to do a story that you know is going to be hard to sell. So you need a big name or two to get the studio on board. But then you're stuck with a highly recognisable face that everyone knows is American but has to use an Afrikaaner accent.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Tim Robbins was completely believable as the South African police interrogator. His accent seemed flawless, and with his excellent acting I was able to buy-in to his character immediately. And I assumed that Derek Luke, who played the protagonist Patrick Chamusso, was African. In fact, he's from LA and has appeared in Spartan and Antwone Fisher (in the title role).
Apartheid, like say Nazism or so-called terrorism, is an easy target. It doesn't take much effort to totally demonise even minor participants, even though they may be ordinary people. Noyce skilfully avoided such caricatures. Using effective cinematic devices, he was able to portray that both the protagonist and the antagonist had much in common. They both had two daughters, and both loved their families and their country. But one became a torturer and one became the tortured.
Noyce's portrayal of Apartheid was very balanced. Robbin's character Vos was a family man with a job. His family loved him, but at work he was a man to be feared. Torture is a method that has been shown to not work. Both Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo and Noyce's Catch A Fire illustrate this by depicting false confessions that were actually made by innocents. According to Noyce at the Q&A session that proceeded the film, the confessions made by Chamusso after he joined the ANC were deliberately sparse on detail and designed to appease but ultimately frustrate his interrogators.
I asked Noyce if the film was making a statement about current world events, and he acknowledged that it was. It is very relevant to the war on terror and the West's turning to inhumane methods. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter", he quoted. Patrick Chamusso was a hero, he said, not because he took up arms, but because he renounced them. The ANC had a policy of not harming innocents, but this wasn't always the case. Chamusso was unsuccessful (and was jailed), because he was careful to follow this policy.
Phillip Noyce is showing himself to be a deft master of quietly subversive films with commercial appeal, but ultimately they are socio-political commentaries with a strong humanitarian element. This film should have wide appeal among both casual movie-goers and the more serious cinephiles.
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