Movie Review: Hotel Rwanda
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
In "Hotel Rwanda," Don Cheadle gives a phenomenal performance as a real-life hero: Paul Rusesabagina, a quiet, meticulous Rwandan hotel manager who, in the face of chaos and slaughter, became an unlikely savior.
In the maelstrom's center during the 1994 Rwanda massacres, Rusesabagina - who managed the posh Belgian-owned Hotel des Mille Collines in Rwanda's capital city of Kigali - rescued 1,268 people during the bloody spring. That's what the film shows us. We see Rusesabagina, calm, resourceful, tactful and constantly improvising, save those refugees by granting them sanctuary, keeping the hotel going and adroitly maneuvering with authorities as the bloodletting rages outside.
The history behind the movie and the main character recall Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Yet, if "Hotel Rwanda" isn't moviemaking on that level, Irish director and co-writer Terry George's film is still a fine one - a calm, riveting ground-zero look at a terrible slice of history.
Most of the story is seen through the eyes of Rusesabagina and his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and occasionally over the shoulder of gutsy TV reporter Jack Daglish (Joaquin Phoenix). By the end, we have a strong sense of horrifying injustice, a human catastrophe in which much of the world (including the U.S. government and the UN peacekeeping force) stood mute or ineffectual while more than a million people were slaughtered.
Most of the victims were Tutsi tribespeople massacred by the ruling Hutus. It's an irony of the story that Rusesabagina was a Hutu, married to a Tutsi. It was the people of his wife's tribe whom he saved - while, after the assassination of Rwanda's Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, rifle-toting Hutu mobs roamed the streets, killing wantonly, incited by rabble-rousing radio commentary and corrupt Hutu extremists.
The Hotel des Mille Collines is an elegant, unlikely haven, catering to the international gentry. But those guests are evacuated as the violence explodes, and gradually George shows the hotel, with Rusesabagina's consent, filling up with the threatened Tutsi, one step ahead of the Hutu mobs. He also shows the steady growth of Rusesabagina's heroism - a man constantly risking his neck to save his family and the refugees, relying on his sympathetic hotel management overseas (represented by uncredited French star Jean Reno as the company president).
Yet, even as the wily, smooth-talking Rusesabagina manipulates or bribes the Hutu government and military, including the brutal hedonist General Bizimungu (incisively played by Fana Mokoena), he and his guests are increasingly forgotten or failed by the international community, the UN peacekeepers (led by Nick Nolte as outraged but helpless Col. Oliver) and sometimes by treacherous members of his largely loyal and steadfast staff. Still, he keeps on, quietly and determinedly.
It's a great story. But it's Cheadle who makes the movie really special, delivering a memorable and utterly convincing portrayal of a truly good man. His character is an urbane professional plunged into war's madness, a man who digs into himself during a crisis and has to keep digging deeper as the crisis grows unimaginably worse. Never overstating, always careful and lucid, Cheadle puts us securely into each scene. He lets us live the experience.
Cheadle, also now on display in "After the Sunset" and the amusing hit "Ocean's Twelve," is a brilliant character actor, always good and sometimes extraordinary. He was fantastic as the hip comic villain Mouse in "Devil in a Blue Dress." Here he surpasses himself, and the rest of the cast rises to the occasion along with him.
"Hotel Rwanda" is not a striking film visually. It's deliberately plain looking, focused on the appalling events with an almost documentary immediacy. Until the slightly sentimental ending, it always feels real.
In the midst of this, Cheadle creates a near-definitive picture of what Hemingway called grace under pressure. And filmmaker George - who has made strong films on the Irish "troubles" in "Some Mother's Son" and the Vietnam War in "A Bright, Shining Lie" - once again powerfully reveals historical traumas and the people caught up in them.
Those people and their awful predicament will remain in our field of vision. And they should. Though Jamie Foxx, in "Ray," gave this year's almost peerless movie-acting performance as Ray Charles, Cheadle's marvelous incarnation of Paul Rusesabagina, an exemplary man in awful circumstances, is on that level. Watching Cheadle's art and the strong, essential humanity that shines through it, you're riveted and humbled.
Directed by Terry George; written by George and Keir Pearson; photographed by Robert Fraisse; edited by Naomi Geraghty; production designed by Tony Burrough and Johnny Breedt; music by Andrea Guerra, Rupert Gregson-Williams and Afro Celt Sound System; consultant Paul Rusesabagina; produced by George and A. Kitman Ho. An MGM release of a United Artists presentation in association with Lions Gate Entertainment; opened Wednesday, Dec. 22. Running time: 2:01. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence, disturbing images and brief strong language).
Paul Rusesabagina - Don Cheadle
Tatiana Rusesabagina - Sophie Okonedo
Jack Daglish - Joaquin Phoenix
Col. Colonel Oliver - Nick Nolte
Sabena Hotel President - Jean Reno
George Rutagunda - Hakeem Kae-Kazim
General Bizimungu - Fana Mokoena
Thomas Mirama - Antonio David Lyons