Words like "harrowing" and "devastating" somehow seem insufficient when talking about "Hotel Rwanda."
Director and co-writer Terry George's film, about the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans in the mid-1990s, is both bleak and brutal - but it's also enormously educational and, in time, inspirational. Because in the midst of the slaughter, when the rest of the world wasn't paying attention, hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina managed to save 1,268 lives.
"Hotel Rwanda" is his story, and theirs. Thanks largely to a powerful performance from Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina, the world should start paying attention now.
Cheadle has always been a solid, insightful supporting actor, consistently capable of losing himself in the smallest of roles - from "Boogie Nights" to "Traffic" to "Ocean's Eleven," to name a few. He gets his first real shot at starring here. His transformation is subtle and utterly believable, and it's the heart of the film.
Rusesabagina is slick at the beginning, all business, keeping up the appearance of impenetrable luxury at the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali. Even as his neighbors are being killed all around him, prompted by battle cries of ethnic cleansing across the radio waves, he refuses to help anyone but his wife, Tatiana (the beautiful and strong Sophie Okonedo), and their young children.
He is a member of the Hutu ethnic group, married to a woman from the rival Tutsis, but he won't get involved in politics. He stays out of the fray and keeps the military leaders at bay by paying them off with single-malt scotch and Cohibas.
Even when Rusesabagina agrees to begin hiding Tutsi refugees inside the hotel, he's still primarily concerned with aesthetics. His immediate reaction when he walks into the suite where his family will be forced to live is that it's "unacceptable." The bed is unmade, he complains to one of his employees, and there's a leftover room service tray.
When the situation starts getting really bloody, United Nations peacekeepers step in under the leadership of Col. Oliver (a remarkably nuanced Nick Nolte). But they're largely ineffective, despite the colonel's best intentions, because there is simply too much chaos raging all around them. One scene, in which endless numbers of massacred bodies lie stacked along a dirt road, is reminiscent of "The Killing Fields."
Then the Europeans pull out, turning their backs and essentially leaving the Rwandans to fend for themselves. Rusesabagina finds himself doing something he never would have done before: buying the safety of his Tutsi neighbors, often at gunpoint, often using stolen money, jewels and other luxury items. In effect, he becomes an accidental Oskar Schindler figure.
Despite its frequently powerful imagery, "Hotel Rwanda" is a hard film to recommend - not because of any insurmountable problems with style or substance, but because it's hard to get people to want to watch a film about a decade-old African genocide. It could be construed as the cinematic equivalent of eating your vegetables.
While it's often moving, "Hotel Rwanda" also is not a perfect film. George's script (which he wrote with Kier Pearson) can be a bit heavy-handed at times. It isn't enough for Joaquin Phoenix's character, a sympathetic American TV news photographer, to notice that two beautiful women sitting next to him at the hotel bar could be sisters, even though one is a Hutu and the other a Tutsi. He has to say so out loud.
And the use of music can be a bit obtrusive, especially considering that the film's subject matter has so much inherent drama. We don't need a sweeping score to signal the emotional intensity of a mother being ripped from a child (or being reunited with one).
But there's so much else to admire that "Hotel Rwanda" is very much worth digesting.
"Hotel Rwanda," a United Artists release, is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language. Running time: 121 minutes. Three stars out of four.