Hotel Rwanda (review)

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Out of Africa

It’s been 10 years since a million Rwandans were murdered over a period of just a few months in the worst genocide in recent history, 10 years since the rest of the world ignored the slaughter and allowed it to happen even as TV news cameras captured the events and the UN, which should be policing precisely these kinds of horrendous crimes, withdrew its peacekeepers.
But it will not be possible to ignore Hotel Rwanda, a mostly true tale of survival and courage– nay, of basic human decency amidst the carnage so terrible as to be inconceivable. That sounds like a stale cliché, “the inspiring story of a man who blah blah blah while the world blah blah blah.” But there’s no soppy melodrama in this gut-wrenching film, no attempt to excuse or mollify the human tendency — however normal, however much a sanity-retaining mechanism it may be — to see a million deaths as merely a statistic. This is a movie that makes you sick to your stomach with embarrassment at being a human being, that we could do such brutal and senseless things to one another, and saves you, eventually, by reminding you that while people are awful, individual persons can be good enough to spark some hope that there’s something worthwhile in us as a species, something that may save us from ourselves.

The Rwandan national capital city of Kigali is hardly a particularly pleasant or peaceful place when we first meet Paul Rusesabagina, house manager at the luxury, Belgian-owned Milles Collines hotel. Paul is smooth, suave, greasing the wheels for himself in a society rife with corruption, passing out hard-to-come-by scotch or Cuban cigars to the powerful men who pass through the hotel — generals, warlords, and the like. It’s not that Paul is corrupt himself: he’s a decent, genuine man, but he has enough foresight to see that a time will come when he’ll need to cash in those banked favors to help his family. That time came in the spring of 1994.

If you’ve heard anything about Hotel Rwanda, it’s probably that it was inspired by the real Paul Rusesabagina, who saved something like 1200 people from being massacred in the madness of ethnic cleansing that swept over the country that horrific spring by sheltering them in the Milles Collines hotel. But the film — from director Terry George (Hart’s War, A Bright Shining Lie), who wrote the screenplay with Keir Pearson — builds to that point: Paul’s actions could be the culmination of an atmosphere of slowly mounting suspense if the story weren’t so well known, if only now and only because it’s been turned into a movie. But there’s plenty suspense, instead, in the magnificently modest performance of Don Cheadle (Ocean’s Twelve, After the Sunset) as Paul — he’s always been a fascinatingly intense actor to watch, and here he paradoxically relaxes into what may be his most demanding, most complex role ever, and his work is just simple and invisible and consummate. Cheadle takes Paul from a position of supreme pragmatism — from which he can watch, in one dreadful scene, his neighbors, of the wrong ethnic persuasion, being dragged from their home and beaten by armed soldiers and say coolly to his wife, “There is nothing we can do” — to one of aching desperation, where he cannot abandon the refugees under his shaky protection even when given the clear and easy opportunity to do so.

The great drama of Hotel Rwanda is the transformation of Paul from a bystander unwilling to get involved to a man in a world of thugs and criminals — much of it at the gentle but persistent urging of his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo: Dirty Pretty Things); Cheadle and Okonedo together create a tough and tender cocoon of marital succor and challenge. The spectre of Schindler’s List hangs over Hotel Rwanda, but not so much that that this new film can’t be appreciated on its own merits — nor does it suffer in comparison (though List might, its sentimentality shown up by Rwanda‘s simplicity). And the horror of it is so much more immediate, for me, at least, the atrocities of the genocide happening so out in the open, before the eyes of the world. The frustrations of the foreign characters who are unable to do anything — Nick Nolte (Hulk, The Good Thief) as a hamstrung Canadian UN peacekeeping commander; Joaquin Phoenix (Ladder 49, The Village) as an American news cameraman — mirror my own, a rage-inducing powerless made all the worse by the knowledge that those who could have helped — the United States, the Europeans — did nothing.

As Phoenix’s journalist is being evacuated with the other foreigners, the UN removing non-Rwandans to safety while leaving the locals to their fate, he looks back at the faces of those left behind and near-sobs, “Jesus Christ, I’m so ashamed.” That’s how I feel, too.

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