Film — Hotel Rwanda (PG-13)

Hotel Rwanda (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

Don Cheadle asks what the heck else he’ll need to do to get an Oscar already with his performance as a man fighting to save 1,000 people from genocide in Rwanda in Hotel Rwanda.

The answer to that question, by the way, would be not to play the startlingly brave Paul Rusesabagina the same year as Jamie Foxx played Ray Charles. Were it not for that performance, Cheadle would so be a lock.

Paul, a real-life person in 1994 Rwanda, leads a good life. He is the manager of the Hotel Des Milles Collines in Kilgali. The hotel is top-notch and so is Paul’s ability to play his important guests, giving them scotch and cigars so that they will be available to him if he needs them. And, though he sees the political troubles boiling around him, Paul finds it hard to believe that he will need them as desperately as he ultimately does. His wife is a one-time nurse, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo). She is also a Tutsi. Paul is a Hutu. The distinction is not one that appears to matter in their upwardly mobile world but it is one that mattered historically — the Belgians used Tutsis to enact their colonial power thus creating a permanent riff between countrymen. When the Tutsi rebel forces shoot down the plane of the country’s Hutu president, all hell breaks loose. Incited by a vicious radio broadcast, the Hutu militia are told to kill all the Tutsi. Armed primarily with machetes (dull-looking ones at that), the Hutu proceed to kill about 800,000 of their neighbors, taking special attention to kill the Tutsi children to wipe out future generations.

At the Milles Collines, Paul is so utterly shocked that it should come to this that he, almost naively at first but increasingly with  unshakable resolve, begins harboring refugee Tutsis, from his family to neighbors to orphaned children dropped off by a Red Cross worker. The situation starts off with him bribing militiamen for the lives of his wife and children and then using a patchwork of scant UN protection, a scared army official (Paul convinces the man that the Americans are watching and will try him for war crimes if he does not protect the hotel’s “guests”) and every remaining thing of value to buy the increasing number of Tutsis another day. All the while, Paul and the others hope that the West will intervene. After all, with such horrible bloodshed so evident to news cameras, how can they not get involved?

Easily, as it turns out.

As the killing begins, a cameraman (Joaquin Phoenix) shoots some footage of the massacres. Paul believes this will spur Europe and the United States to action. The cameraman, however, pegs it right when he says that people will exclaim with horror at the shots then continue eating dinner. Later, a UN colonel (Nick Nolte) tells Paul that no one is coming, no one will help him.

Explaining the matter in the most disgusted terms possible, the colonel essentially tells Paul that the world doesn’t care about the fate of a bunch of Africans. The colonel, whose UN force is almost laughable in its futility, attempts to help Paul keep death at bay but his abilities are limited by an order not to get involved in what the world views as merely a civil war.

Hotel Rwanda is perhaps not tremendously subtle in its messages (Paul is good, genocide is bad) but the story itself is so engrossing, so embarrassing it can be forgiven small flaws in the delivery. With each development, you know that things will only get worse, that no help will come and yet that fact seems improbable — insane, even. How could this have happened in an age of CNN? When a report of only possible weapons spurs us to war, how could the US and the UN have declined to step in to prevent the murder of a group of people not much smaller than the entire population of New Hampshire?

Part of the credit for delivering this message as clearly as it is goes to Cheadle. A solid character actor, he makes Paul no saint, just a reasonable man who can not believe what has happened in his country and what it requires him to do. We never get the sense that he has any delusions of greatness. His main concern is saving his family and beyond that he feels a moral obligation to protect those who have sought the sanctity of his hotel. Cheadle is able to give us a picture of this man without breaking down the character into a one-dimensional angle.

Of all the faux “important” movies released in a year, Hotel Rwanda actually lives up to the phrase “must see.”

- Amy Diaz

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