One of the most amazing things about Hotel Rwanda, a film with no shortage of revelations, is that it's actually playing in theaters, as opposed to the pay cable channels that too often play host to real-life historical dramas like this. This scrappy, powerful and shocking film benefits tremendously from the big screen, and while it's not a perfect film -- for the first half hour or so it looks and feels suspiciously like a network movie of the week thanks to some odd directorial and cinematographic choices -- it is most assuredly an important one, with echoes of current events (in Sudan) that cannot be ignored.
Best of all, though, is Don Cheadle, who carries the film on his slim shoulders with ease and turns in the finest performance of his career. (No mean feat, that, when you consider his work with Stephen Soderbergh and P.T. Anderson.) Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the Belgian-owned four-star Hotel Des Milles Collines in Kigali, Rwanda. It's 1994, the eve of destruction for Rwanda: In a matter of days, the country will be ripped apart by ethnic tensions, with the majority Hutu waging all-out war on the minority Tutsi after the country's Hutu president is assassinated. Until then, Rusesabagina had enjoyed a prosperous life as the go-to man for Cuban cigars and fine single-malt scotches, the manager's manager -- calm, cool and unflappably devoted to the comfort of his guests. But then he is forced to shelter more than 1,000 terrified Tutsi in the swank confines of the Milles Collines as the country literally slips over the edge and into the abyss of racial madness.
Paul, a Hutu, is desperate to protect his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), a Tutsi, and their three children, and he employs all the cunning he can muster to guarantee their safety, calling in favors he has amassed during his years of service to the wealthy and elite (not to mention the military) and bribing away the danger with Glenfiddich and Heinekens. The vast majority of Westerners are only remotely familiar with the story of Rwanda's self-destruction -- in 1994 coverage was sparse, with The New York Times and CNN leading the way, to little avail -- and the film provides economic exposition to fill in the history of the Hutu/Tutsi conflict. While the Clinton administration and the U.N. absurdly parse the meaning of the word genocide, the Tutsi -- especially Tutsi children -- are cut down in their front yards, literally: The Hutu's weapon of choice is the machete.
Nick Nolte pops up in a significant role as the leader of a U.N. peacekeeping force, and Joaquin Phoenix appears as an idealistic cameraman, but Cheadle's Rusesabagina is the moral crux of the story, the Oskar Schindler of Kigali, who, amazingly, retains his veneer of cool-headed lucidity when all around him has descended into madness.
Despite the real-life horrors on which Hotel Rwanda is based, the film is particularly restrained, but no less effective for it, when intimating the sheer horrific brutality of the conflict; corpses are seen but not lingered over, and the most riveting scenes come not from the slaughter but from the rest of the world's inability to care about it.
In the end, however, it's all down to Cheadle, whose portrayal of the tr & eacute;s civilized Paul Rusesabagina, utilizing his intellect and managerial skills to stem the flow of death, is nothing short of brilliant.
Publication date: 2/03/05