Although we’re freely encouraged to draw parallels to the making of present-day insurgents, the events dramatized in the sleekly tidied-up biopic Catch a Fire are specific to South Africa in 1980, when desperate white-minority defenders of apartheid were employing outrageous tactics to subdue the country’s increasingly politicized black majority. That’s when Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), a cautious, resolutely apolitical black oil-refinery worker who saved his cheering for his son’s soccer team, first felt the flames: Wrongly suspected of sabotage on the job, he became the unyielding obsession of antiterrorism investigator Nic Vos (Tim Robbins), a religious family man himself who, in his misguided zeal to defend a crumbling, racist way of life, lit the match that ignited Chamusso’s radicalism. Enough harassment, disruption, abuse — including the torture of Chamusso’s wife (Bonnie Henna) — and the once-docile citizen did molt into an insurgent, the very rebel Vos and his kind feared in the first place. (The real Chamusso spent a decade in prison.)
It’s a sign of apartheid wounds healing and moviegoing expectations maturing that Catch a Fire is as morally complex as it is — and that I wish it were even more rigorous; perhaps Shawn Slovo, the daughter of famous white South African activists (she told her murdered mother’s story in A World Apart), was not the best screenwriter for the job of grappling with ambiguity. At any rate, Robbins tamps Vos into a muted man who can never be written off as a cartoon devil, and Luke, in a passionate performance reminiscent of his work in Antwone Fisher, doesn’t hide Chamusso’s flaws. With the same affinity for stories of culture clash he showed in The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence, director Phillip Noyce embraces the tale with gusto, lighting up a picture that is as much a taut action saga as it is a cautionary history lesson.