A decade ago, Americans were mostly unaware of Rwanda's civil war, a conflict that degenerated into the genocide of nearly 1-million citizens. Director and co-writer Terry George reminds viewers of that indifference in Hotel Rwanda, while at the same time that lack of Western insight softens the impact of his film.
Hotel Rwanda operates on the assumption that Americans understand the rift between the Hutu and Tutsi cultures and are aware of which side is most righteous. It takes for granted that we know the extent of the bloodshed, and it pauses only briefly for a U.S. journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) to get a crash course in a conflict based on what seem nearly undetectable differences. You can't tell insurgents from oppressors without a score card, or at least a military uniform.
Complicating matters is George's timidity in dramatizing the grisly era. The PG-13 rating, earned after an R was successfully appealed, doesn't permit the horrors to be clearly defined. In Schindler's List, a film many will compare to Hotel Rwanda, the heroism that saved Jews during the Holocaust was amplified by the sight of them being mercilessly killed. Not a single scene in Hotel Rwanda matches the image of a Nazi commandant using prisoners for target practice from his balcony; we see only anonymous corpses strewn around the Rwandan landscape.
Without a visceral sense of terror, the efforts of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) to shelter refugees in the posh hotel he manages don't seem like the big deal they actually were. A viewer with keen awareness of the times, or a personal stake in the massacre, would dispute that statement. But it's the shortcomings of George, not of Rusesabagina, which make it true for uninformed viewers who, unfortunately, are most of us.
Hotel Rwanda is, however, a classy outline of a complex tragedy, mostly because of Cheadle's performance. Effortlessly accenting Paul's proper English speech, Cheadle conveys the internal conflict of a man prone to do nothing brave yet realizing he must do something. Using the same patient assertiveness he might show a disgruntled guest, Paul deals with devils on both sides of the Hutu-Tutsi war, plus the wingless angels of the United Nations who pose as keepers of the peace, led by Nick Nolte's politically impotent colonel.
Paul's first impulse is to keep the hotel operating as usual, despite the unrest outside its flower-covered gates. Initially, as with Oskar Schindler, business takes priority over humanity. Then Paul realizes that his hotel is the only oasis in hell and that his guests are viewed as removed from the violence. He takes in anyone for free _ Hutu, Tutsi, whoever _ to save lives, while he risks his own.
A sense of goodness, of conscience, in Hotel Rwanda makes complaining about the film sound cynical. But it's the difference between lighting a candle in reverence and actually having it illuminate something. Chiefly, George stops short of making Rwanda look extremely dangerous. We get the impression that a relatively small skirmish has gotten out of hand, with little evidence of the extent of the carnage until the end credits. The very nature of Paul's mercy confines the problem to the hotel grounds.
One exception, the strongest declaration of horror in the movie, occurs when Paul leaves the hotel to drive over an unusually bumpy road to get supplies. Through the mist and dim light, he realizes he has been driving over dead bodies. That's a gut-punch moment in a film requiring more of them to reach out to audiences previously uninvolved with the Rwanda tragedy.
The film succeeds on more personal levels through its dedicated performances: Nolte's U.N. officer conveys a dual sense of importance and impotence, Sophie Okonedo is heartbreaking as Paul's devoted wife, Tatiana, while Fana Mokoena expertly swings between menace and greed as a Rwandan militia officer who receives perks for doing his brutal job. Parts of Hotel Rwanda are richer than the whole, including Robert Fraisse's cinematography and an effective musical score.
George created a good movie that could have been a great one, and there are so few good movies these days that we appreciate it. But Hotel Rwanda seldom pushes our consciences to new levels of concern. We watch, we're slightly moved, yet we'll leave the theater only slightly more aware that such terrible crimes against humanity happened, or that they can happen again.
Director: Terry George
Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, Fana Mokoena
Screenplay: Keir Pearson, Terry George
Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity, disturbing images, mature themes
Running time: 110 min.