MGM-UNITED ARTISTS/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital & DTS/110 Mins./Rated PG-13
Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix, Nick Nolte, Cara Seymour, Jean Reno.
Credits: Directed by Terry George. Written by George, Keir Pearson, Produced by George, A. Kitman Ho. Executive producers: Hal Sadoff, Martin F. Katz, Duncan Reid, Sam Bhembe. Director of photography: Robert Fraisse. Production designers: Johnny Breedt, Tony Burrough. Edited by Naomi Geraghty. Music by Andrea Guerra. Costume designer: Ruy Filipe. Special consultant: Paul Rusesabagina. Co-executive producers: Pearson, Nicholas Meyer. Co-producers: Bridget Pickering, Luigi Musini. A Miracle Pictures/Seamus production, in association with Inside Track, presented in association with Lions Gate Entertainment.
The most remarkable aspect of Hotel Rwanda, a notable film in numerous ways, is the skill with which Terry George turns a horrific moment in history into a love story with a hopeful ending. The writer-director-producer rightly realized he could convey the enormity of genocide only by humanizing it, by focusing on one family’s struggle to survive.
In the spring of 1994, the central African nation of Rwanda—a verdant country bordering the nature reserve depicted in Gorillas in the Mist—collapsed into civil war between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. Although the tribes shared the same language and culture, colonial resentments and long-simmering feuds had created a climate of fear and loathing. Within 100 days, more than one million Rwandans were murdered, most of them Tutsi hacked to death by machete-wielding Hutu provoked into a blood lust by hate propaganda. The United Nations and countries with interests in the region—Belgium, France and the United States are singled out in the film—failed to intervene.
During this three-month nightmare, an ordinary citizen named Paul Rusesabagina contrived to rescue more than 1,200 of his countrymen, Tutsi and Hutu alike, by boarding them inside the Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. His bravery in confronting overwhelming evil inspired the movie which, the director believes, will inspire the world. "I knew if we got this story right and got it made," says George, "it would have audiences from Peoria to Pretoria cheering for a real African hero who fought to save lives in a hell we would not dare to invent."
A Hutu, Rusesabagina initially downplayed the gravity of the situation, relying on carefully cultivated ties to powerful people—army colonels, black-market privateers, Western businessmen—to protect him and his family. Genuinely shocked when soldiers, accompanied by ragtag militia, raided his neighborhood in search of Tutsi, he nevertheless trusted his government, and the international community, to maintain order. Even the discovery of his own son cowering in the bushes, covered with the blood of a slaughtered playmate, failed to convince him of the impending massacre, although in fact there was little he or anyone could do to stop it, or even escape it.
Don Cheadle delivers a convincing, tempered performance as Rusesabagina, rapidly transforming from opportunistic manager of a four-star hotel in the heart of the Third World—a role that requires an unctuous attitude and flexible moral code—to that of de facto diplomat, negotiating with U.N. functionaries, corporate executives and ruthless mercenaries who all, in form or another, trade in death. Sophie Okonedo, best known for her work in Dirty Pretty Things, plays Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana, a Tutsi who, like her Hutu husband, gives of herself unselfishly to save lives.
The cast also features Nick Nolte as an ineffective U.N. officer given to maudlin soul searching. Nolte seems tired, not unlike the weary trooper he plays, but his part requires that he act as the film’s raisonneur given to righteous speeches about Western prejudice…the only false notes in an otherwise forthright film. Joaquin Phoenix has more edge as the lecherous but standup photojournalist who acts instead of accuses.
Although the Rwanda massacres were among the bloodiest of the last century, George avoids graphic violence, allowing the audience to glimpse enough of the madness beyond the hotel compound to underscore the precarious situation of the people praying for their lives inside its walls. As he proved with his earlier scripts, notably The Boxer, he knows how to interweave romance with suspense without resorting to maudlin sentiment.
That said, the hero of Hotel Rwanda is much more conventional than his counterpart in The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s recent Oscar-winning movie about the Holocaust. Paul Rusesabagina is an ordinary man who suddenly finds himself capable of performing extraordinary acts of courage to save his family and hundreds of others. Wladyslaw Szpilman was an extraordinary talent overwhelmed by the enormity of the events overtaking him. The films make for interesting comparison, both true to the events they depict, but revealing very different truths about human nature when confronted with unimaginable horror.