Like any animal on its last legs, apartheid turned snarlingly vicious at the prospect of South Africa’s black majority sweeping away white privilege. By 1980—the setting for this narrative that dramatizes real-life insurgent Patrick Chamusso’s progress from complaisant soccer dad to bomb-wielding insurgent—the beast was gnawing on its own leg by systematically employing arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without charge or access to lawyers, and torture including water-boarding, electroshock, and isolation. Could this be relevant to today’s world?
For a 20th-century story, this how-to-make-a-terrorist biopic carries a very 21st-first century sense of constant social crisis, but a disappointingly slick approach drains away any risky politics. Director Phillip Noyce swoops his camera across the veldt like David Lean, delivering the producers’ money’s worth of colorful Transvaal locations, yet hesitates to explore Chamusso’s inner life, no fault of the charismatic Derek Luke’s solid anchoring performance (his best role since his debut in Antwone Fisher). Naïve and conformist, his Chamusso remains a cautious family man until wrongly suspected of blowing up an installation in the giant Secunda oil refinery. In real life, he was stuck with a poison-pill alibi, unable to admit he was clandestinely visiting an old flame; revealing this would amount to a public confession of infidelity to his wife, an intriguing irony which the film addresses instead of questioning whether his materialistic expectations and conservative quietism (someone calls him an “Uncle Tom”) enabled the system of exploitation.
To illustrate the apparatus of oppression, Noyce crosscuts to anti-terrorist investigations led by Nic Vos, czar of the government’s secret police and shrewd defender of the old order (he does the math: “Twenty-three million blacks to three million whites. We’re the underdogs. We’re the ones under attack”). Yet, in a string of meetings, interrogations, and confrontations between Vos and Chamusso, dramatic sparks stubbornly refuse to ignite. As the designated cat in the script’s cat-pursues-mouse plot, the role seems amplified to accommodate a shaggy and mournful-eyed Tim Robbins, whose overly studied line readings only showcase his carefully cultivated Afrikaans accent.
Given that screenwriter Shawn Slovo’s white parents both played pivotal roles in the national struggle—her activist mother was assassinated by letter bomb (as dramatized in her script for Chris Menges’s A World Apart) and her labor leader father (pictured all too briefly here) founded South Africa’s communist party and organized guerilla warfare, later serving in Mandela’s government—she has unaccountably chosen a blandly humanist way to portray the hell of injustice and psychological pressure that impelled Chamusso and thousands like him to embrace a life of illegality. Why does her script fail to dramatize the emotional grit of a father’s heady decision to abandon his family for exile at military training camps in Mozambique and Angola? In fact, only the inflammatory insurgent training scenes, with rebel commanders inciting recruits with shouts of “Are you ready to die?,” convey the militants’ ideological commitment (and Noyce helps by switching to a more mercurial 16mm handheld camerawork).
A specialist in the clash of races and cultures through the aftershocks of colonialism, Noyce successfully fused political and personal in the half-caste children’s trek to freedom in Australia’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, and the treacherous Anglo-American war of wits over a Vietnamese woman’s body and soul in The Quiet American. Here, despite the occasional striking visual surprise (Aryan blue eyes glowing in the blackened faces of commandos signal an ambush) and some imaginative sound design (those anguished cries in the night at the remote detention compound: are they animals or humans?), Noyce regularly succumbs to the thuddingly literal. Isn’t there some better way to highlight the hero’s talent for strategy than showing him frowning over a chessboard? Similarly, Chamusso confiscates his mother’s radio when he hears a forbidden African National Congress broadcast but following a stint in the state’s infamous interrogation center, he eagerly tunes in and even turns up the volume. Isn’t it laboriously obvious to crosscut between flag-draped coffins borne on the dancing shoulders of the crowd and the stiff official ceremony awarding medals to Vos and his police functionaries?
Substituting action-movie tropes for any rigorous political stance, Noyce still muddles Chamusso’s final terrorist mission to blow up a mammoth refinery east of Johannesburg. This climax should fall on the movie with the finality of an axe, but without clarity about the objectives and plan, suspense dissipates in the forced pace. For all its flaws, In My Country, John Boorman’s drama set during the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, moves the heart in ways that Catch a Fire never approaches.