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Personal Histories

Catch a Fire and The Last King of Scotland conjure up forgotten Africa

Recently, director Phillip Noyce told The New York Times that before he could begin shooting Catch a Fire, his new movie about apartheid-era South Africa, he felt obliged to live there for nine months. "It took that long to only begin to understand . . . the history and the culture of both sides," he said.

Too bad Catch a Fire doesn't convey any apparent benefits of that immersive research. Despite working with a fact-based script written by Shawn Slovo, the daughter of African National Congress (ANC) founder Joe Slovo and martyred anti-apartheid activist Ruth First, Noyce's film fails to induce either lasting deep feelings or fresh insights. Ironically, his film feels a little colonizing-as if he'd just parachuted in and gobbled up all the raw political-thriller material he could find.

That film is based on the true story of Secunda refinery worker Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), whom the South African Special Branch wrongly arrested in 1980 on charges of sabotage, tortured into a false confession and finally drove to join the ANC and take the revolutionary action of which he'd been falsely accused in the first place. It's a highly-charged political story from an era that directors such as Loach, Fassbinder and Costa-Gavras-all at once fierce and merciful-would have been well-equipped to examine. But Noyce has little in common with those international heavyweights.

And the casting of Catch a Fire co-star Tim Robbins is problematic too. In that same Times article, Robbins says of South African society: "This is a society in transition, and it's all very fresh. It's the exciting thing about it, and it's the disturbing thing about it. It's going to be generations before people even understand their own racism. I mean I'm hearing stuff that I heard when I was a kid in the early 60s in New York."

In lieu of finding the patience and humility to let the beleaguered nation catch up with his own enlightenment, Robbins elected to portray Chamusso's torturing interrogator, the security police chief Nic Vos, in Noyce's film. And although Catch a Fire pretends to allow Robbins' character a moral self-inventory-as signified through his customary gesture of gravitas . . . staring into space-his performance basically damns the character and all he stands for, without nuance.

Noyce abets this performance, strangely by holding Luke's much more human portrayal of the central protagonist, Chamusso, at arm's length. This is presumably for the sake of that cherished dispassion in his filmmaking that the director also describes to the Times.

Noyce allows this movie to become a Tim Robbins vehicle, which is to say he engages in a political repurposing of the material. Robbins tries less to understand Vos' history and cultural background than to make a blunt allegorical example of the character and draw comparisons between all that Vos represents and an American administration with which the actor is, um, shall we say, dissatisfied.

Not that the time isn't exactly right for an essay on the uses and abuses of militancy. And surely a movie about a repressive government radicalizing its own citizenry needn't be dull. But this one takes too much of an admonitory tone, belaboring its thematic timeliness to the point of letting the dramatization go stale. It's like a clumsy homage to some half-remembered Graham Greene novel. Wait-wasn't it Noyce who gave us The Quiet American four years ago?

In Catch a Fire, the director mires mostly in drab, extraneous establishing shots that lack both the menace and the compassion that the material requires. When he does turn on the technique-cross-cutting between the funerals of revolutionaries and those of policemen, juxtaposing the soulful freedom songs of the former with the martial dirges of the latter-the move feels tritely familiar. Wait-wasn't it Noyce who used that very same gimmick in Clear and Present Danger?

In the slow-motion epilogue to Catch a Fire, actor Derek Luke and the real Patrick Chamusso playing soccer together is supposed to be a payoff-our reward for all the suffering leading up to it. But it feels jarring, like an admission that the movie didn't get it right on its own.

The action in The Last King of Scotland depicts another situation of African turmoil that took place a decade earlier, and it too peters out into an actual-footage epilogue. But strangely enough, this film, by Kevin Macdonald, is much more engaging.

In The Last King, a callow but well-intentioned young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) heads to Uganda, where he wants to make a contribution. At a street rally, he hears the country's new president, Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) say with optimism, "This will be a government of action!" The doctor figures those words must be true, considering the speaker is up there before the crowd as a result of having taken the presidency by force.

Our young Scotsman is intrigued, and in no time gets himself appointed as the president's personal physician and advisor. Unfortunately, Amin is not merely a charmer and a go-getter; he is also a raving lunatic and a mass murderer.

A team of several writers worked on the adaption of The Last King of Scotland from Giles Foden's novel, and Macdonald cut his directorial teeth making dramatized biographical documentaries (Being Mick, Touching the Void). This all adds up to a movie that trades in very direct political appraisal-namely, the personality study. It approaches what Noyce might call "the history and culture of both sides" by refusing at once to apologize for either.

The doctor character is fictional, but we recognize the truth of his moral failings, as they allow us to identify with him. The dictator's moral failings are expected; it's his otherwise winning personality that's so upending. As the doctor correctly tells him near the movie's end, "You're a child. That's what makes you so fucking scary."

The Last King of Scotland does have its flaws (from clunky montage to an indiscriminately applied Afro-pop soundtrack to implausible turns of plot), but basic cultural comprehension isn't one of them. That's thanks largely to Whitaker, who commands the film with his hurricane of a performance. What's striking is how much the characterization seems to matter to him-more, certainly, than grinding any particular political axe. Whitaker has a great and voracious talent, and he wants to work it.

This dramatized version of Amin is a role of human scope-so deeply human that it's off the deep end, possibly beyond the limits of what any cinematic politics can fully describe. If Whitaker's terrific portrayal ultimately inspires more admiration for the actor than understanding of the actual man or his nation, it may go to show that some history is just too personal.