Hotel Rwanda faces the monumental task of chronicling and telling the story of one man’s heroism during one of the worst slaughters in recent world history, and one that most of the world turned a blind eye to. With a top notch directing effort by Terry George and the role of a lifetime for Don Cheadle, the film is an overwhelming, sad, and heartfelt achievement. Hotel Rwanda is not a film you want to see, but one that that should be required viewing.
Here’s a brief history lesson, as the events that unfolded in Rwanda in the mid-1990’s will be unfamiliar to most moviegoers. During that period, Rwanda was in a period of civil war with very little order and large numbers of rebels. The Hutus and the Tutsis were the two groups at the center of the conflict, with the Hutu rebels bent on completely wiping out the Tutsi population. It was genocide, plain and simple, even though analysts and other talking heads wanted to debate it (as was discussed in some chilling sound bytes used in the film from the Clinton Administration).
The story centers not on the exact details of the genocide, but on Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle), the hotel manager of the exquisite Hotel Milles Collines. He is a Hutu, but his wife, Tatiana (Okonedo), is a Tutsi. As the conflict gets worse and worse, Paul houses as many Hutu and Tutsi refugees as he can. When it was all said and done, Paul housed over 1,200 people in his hotel, saving lives with his business skills and calm under pressure. Approximately one million Rwandans were slaughtered during this period.
The U.N.’s involvement is also touched upon, with the forces being led by Colonel Oliver (Nolte). They have strict orders not to use force of any kind, thus leaving Paul and his guests to fend for themselves. There are also American press shooting footage on the scene, including Jack (Phoenix), who plainly exclaims, “If people see this footage, they will go, ‘Oh, God! That’s horrible,’ and then go back to eating their dinner.” Take a moment and think about that.
Hotel Rwanda is one of the most important films that I have seen as of late. This is the story of an event that everyone should have knowledge of and hopefully learn from. The story of Paul Rusesabagina is courageous and equally moving, and far better than any hammy feel-good story that mainstream Hollywood wants to sick on us. This is a true event that affected the lives of thousands of people, and for that to be brought to light in such an effective and well-made film is an accomplishment that cannot go unnoticed.
Don Cheadle, always a great character actor in previous films, is simply brilliant as Paul. He is a quiet, well-meaning, and well-liked man who would come to be a hero for over a thousand people. His business sense is frequently covered in the film, as he knows well and clear that a fine Cuban cigar can mean more to a man than simply cash in the pocket. Cheadle channels all of these emotions in easily one of the best performances of the year.
The supporting cast, consisting of hundreds, is not to be ignored. Sophie Okonedo is fantastic as Paul’s wife, a woman who appreciates everything her husband is doing, yet still recognizes the danger of it. Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix turn up in smaller roles as a Colonel and American press agent, respectively, but neither leaves the lasting impression that Cheadle does.
The film’s successes must also be attributed to director Terry George, who also wrote the story along with Keir Pearson. George clearly has much respect and affection for Paul’s story, and it translates to the screen in just that fashion. He never sugarcoats any of the violence, even though the film does retain a PG-13 rating. The violence comes frequently and unexpectedly, making for a lasting impression of unforgettable and horrific images.
The only complaint that I have regarding the film, and it’s small, is that most of refugees at the hotel are underdeveloped and simply come across as scared faces in the crowd. The film does not go to great lengths to fully explain the political implications surrounding the genocide, which may leave some viewers frustrated. A basic knowledge of the event is recommended before seeing the film.
Hotel Rwanda is a film that I will not soon forget. It is a history lesson that everyone should be educated about and one that hopefully the entire world can learn something from. In my film dream world, this movie would have a $25 million weekend and people would take the initiative to learn about world events that are not as far away as we we think. A man can dream, can’t he?
Length: 121 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 on appeal for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language.
Theatrical Release: December 22, 2004 (Limited)
Directed by: Terry George
Written by: Keir Pearson & Terry George.
Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, David O’Hara