At one point in "Hotel Rwanda," our hero Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) asks an American TV reporter (Joaquin Phoenix) how the western world could not intervene after seeing scenes of women and children being hacked by machete-wielding Hutu militia.
How could they not, indeed! As we all know, the west didn't intervene. Not surprising, really. After all, this was Africa and Rwanda had no oil reserves. The people being killed were innocent men, women and children, but they were poor and black.
A few years ago, former President Bill Clinton apologized to Rwandans for not intervening during the 100-day massacre that saw about one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus slaughtered in the most barbaric manner. It was gracious of Clinton, but a fat lot of good his apology did to the people who were killed and their families.
The Rwandan genocide - that's what it was, though western leaders split hairs over the meaning of genocide also was a black mark on western nations, which simply got their citizens out of Rwanda and then remained indifferent to the senseless killings.
Terry George's film gives us one story about the Rwandan genocide, of one hero, Paul, a savvy, clever and cunning manager of a swank, four-star Belgian hotel in the capital, Kigali. When the massacres began, Paul, a Hutu, sheltered more than 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the hotel and saved them from the wrath of the bloodthirsty mobs.
Working from a smart script by Keir Pearson and George, "Hotel Rwanda" contains gutwrenching and emotionally trying moments not seen on the big screen since "Schindler's List" (1993). But whereas Spielberg's masterpiece was more arty and artistic - and I don't mean that pejoratively - George's film seems more immediate. Maybe it's because we now see a similar slaughter of poor, downtrodden people in the Darfur region of Sudan and, again, western nations aren't doing much other than threatening to rap the knuckles of the bad guys like angry teachers. This crisis gives "Hotel Rwanda" a sense of urgency.
As visceral as this film is at times, George handles everything in muted fashion. We never see the horrors firsthand. There's brief news footage of people being killed and one particularly searing scene when Paul and his bellhop Gregoire (Tony Kgoroge) find themselves on a bumpy road. The moment's made more horrifying because George unveils it quite matter-of-factly.
Making a PG-13 film about genocide requires numerous compromises. Putting most, if not all, of the violence off-camera is one such bargain George made. True, a closer look at the massacre would have rightly tortured us. But the film, nevertheless, works without gruesome moments. Pearson and George set out to make a story of heroism, survival, love and compassion amid the madness. And they succeeded.
Cheadle carries the entire film. There isn't a false note in his performance. For years, he's turned in one superb performance after another. He's one of those actors who never hits it wrong and whose performances always stand out even if the films themselves aren't all that memorable. Here, he's in equal measure the smooth manager, man with a conscience and frightened husband and father. You can sense Paul's frustration, though Cheadle rarely displays any vulnerability.
He gets great support from Sophie Okonedo as Paul's Tutsi wife, Tatiana, and Nick Nolte doing his best work in years as a Canadian United Nations officer, Colonel Oliver. Okonedo and Cheadle are utterly believable as a couple. They have one traumatic scene on the hotel roof, a quietly powerful moment that tugs at our heartstrings as we watch two people who love each other try to deal with what could happen. Okonedo conveys anger, fear and pain without ever turning the moment sentimental or needlessly overwrought. That's why the moment's shattering.
"Hotel Rwanda" isn't flawless. George doesn't harshly indict the west for its indifference. Also, some scenes, especially one near the film's end, seem staged for obvious dramatic effect, to play with our sense of sympathy and dread. But minor faults can easily be forgiven because the rest of the film works so well, never sensationalizing any moment. The film's straightforward approach gives it more power, makes it more trenchant and meaningful.
I would like to believe that we learn from history and the more powerful western nations will always come to the aid of oppressed people everywhere. But we're doing little in Darfur and although President George W. Bush openly touts his vision to spread liberty and democracy to oppressed peoples everywhere, I doubt he actually means it. After all, this freedom doctrine was something he created only after his initial justification for waging an unjust war - Iraq's supposed stockpiles of WMD - proved to be wholly without merit or fact. I doubt he actually considers bringing liberty to places like Zimbabwe or Burma. He speaks of the need for people to be free, conveniently ignoring some dictatorial nations - Pakistan and Turkmenistan, for instance - because they happen to be our allies. And so the dumb foreign policy continues.
I can only hope the success of "Hotel Rwanda" will prompt other gutsy screenwriters and filmmakers to tell us more stories about the horrors that took place and the complacency of industrialized nations that could have helped and chose not to.
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