Set in 1994, Hotel Rwanda is the extraordinary true story of Paul Rusesabagina (played here by Don Cheadle), the manager of the Hotel Des Milles Collines in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Paul is a man who knows how to grease the wheels; important political and military leaders stay in and/or pass through his hotel, and he takes very good care of them, making certain all their needs are met. In one scene, he points out that a Cuban cigar is more valuable than money, because his guests are already rich and therefore need no more cash. But a nice cigar…that’s a luxury.
Paul’s diplomatic skills come in handy considering that a revolution is going on outside the hotel’s doors. A long-standing battle for control between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes has suddenly erupted in massive violence. Tutsi refugees are revolting against the Hutu militia, who are murdering them in droves. Influential people of all types pass through the hotel, and by taking care of them, Paul has been able to isolate himself - and his clientele - from the dangers going on outside.
As the conflict grows, however, that becomes less and less possible. Tutsis are being brutally murdered on the streets. Paul himself is a Hutu but is married to Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), a Tutsi, and therefore other Tutsis come to him for help. (“You’re the only Hutu they can trust,” Tatiana tells him.) Paul again greases some wheels and is allowed to take some Tutsi friends to the hotel, where he puts them up in rooms. As more and more refugees seek safety, Paul continues to make arrangements for them to stay at his workplace or he simply sneaks them in. When the Hutu militia grows suspicious, Paul stonewalls their attempts to obtain the hotel’s guest list.
Meanwhile, a U.N. representative, Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte), sees what is happening and tries to help get the Tutsi refugees to safety. Paul and Oliver have known each other for a long time, so when the U.N. drags its feet, they attempt to find an alternate solution. A U.N. spokesperson is heard on the radio stating that there are “acts of genocide” taking place in Rwanda. (Notice how it’s not referred to as simply “genocide.”)
Amazingly, Paul Rusesabagina saved over 1,200 Tutsis by allowing them to stay in the relative safety of the Hotel Des Milles Collines. Even more amazing (but not in a good way) is the fact that one million Tutsis were killed. The United Nations knew what was happening but just didn’t seem to care enough to really do anything about it. The film places some blame at the feet of the Clinton administration as well, asserting that they stepped forward to help, then quickly stepped back.
Hotel Rwanda may sound bleak, but somehow it is not. The word I would use is “powerful.” There are some stories that need to be told and this is one of them. Like Schindler’s List, it conveys all the unspeakable horrors of genocide while still providing a sense of uplift by showing how the efforts of one man led to many lives being spared. You walk away from the movie angry that the world did not intervene, yet also inspired that one man could make such an astonishing difference. We tend to think of our own efforts as a drop in the bucket; Paul Rusesabagina proves that one individual can fill the bucket.
Director Terry George does a skillful job portraying the time and the event. Because the rest of the world generally ignored the situation in Rwanda, the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis may not be very familiar to many moviegoers. George gives us an understanding of how it began and how it developed to the level of genocide. He also gives the movie a gripping cinema verite feel. Everything here – the locations, the action, the extras – seem so authentic that you feel as though the actors were merely plunked down in the middle of a real situation. Hotel Rwanda is filled with urgency; there’s not a single second of the film that doesn’t feel intensely real.
At the center is a magnificent performance from Don Cheadle. The actor has been doing solid work for a long time, but this is the best of his career. What Cheadle so crucially conveys is Paul’s ability to grease wheels and meet needs. These are the things that allow him to save so many people. As execution-style slayings are occurring outside, Paul is able to call in favors, reach out to those in positions of power, and do favors that will benefit his refugee guests. He is always a step ahead of everyone else, quickly anticipating what they need, what they want, or what they hope to hear. Through Cheadle’s portrayal, we are able to understand how Paul’s skills have as much to do with psychology as with hotel management. He has to “read” people on the spot. Because he does this so well, he navigates complicated terrain and keeps the Hotel Des Milles Collines operating as an oasis in the middle of a bloody revolt.
Cheadle’s work is deserving of an Oscar nomination. There is only one moment where we see Paul lose control, and the actor unforgettably shows us how this character goes from holding it all together, to cracking under the pressure, to pulling himself together again. The supporting cast – including Nolte, Okonedo, and Joaquin Phoenix (as a news cameraman who wants to show the truth) – is also first-rate. Every single performance is pitch perfect.
Hotel Rwanda has an emotional subplot involving Tatiana’s search for her missing nieces, whose Tutsi parents may have been murdered by the Hutu. I was also riveted by a covert escape attempt during which Col. Oliver attempts to drive truckloads of refugees to safety without being spotted by the Hutu militia. Watching this film really makes you realize how much we in America (and other countries of the Western world) take for granted. These are not occurrences that we have to deal with in our daily lives. As the 1994 Rwanda situation proved, it is all too easy for us to close our eyes and pretend that such things are not occurring in the world. Hopefully Hotel Rwanda will inspire and infuriate us enough to start paying more attention.
( out of four)
Hotel Rwanda is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
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