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Published: 2005-04-29 - 22:10:00
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Hotel Rwanda Review

By Joe Lozito

Grand "Hotel"

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"Hotel Rwanda" is based on the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali and the man who single-handedly saved over 1200 people from 1994's Rwandan genocide. At the start of the film, Paul is presented as one of those wheeler-dealers that can get anything done. His hotel is "an oasis in a desert". Generals, diplomats, and visiting dignitaries all know Paul and know that they will be sure to find a bottle of fine scotch checked with their baggage.

When a proposed peace agreement between the warring Hutu and Tutsi tribes goes horribly wrong causing the Hutus to call for the slaughter of all Tutsis, Paul, a Hutu, finds himself the last bastion of hope for his Tutsi friends. Paul, as we are constantly reminded, is a good man, and he tries to use his connections to protect his friends, the Mille Collines and most importantly his family (Paul's wife is a Tutsi). Paul feels that he will be able to handle this situation because he's been saving up favors all these years but, in a confrontation with the Rwandan General, he realizes that he's only ever been as valuable as his last bottle of scotch. Before he knows it, Paul has turned the Mille Collines into a refugee camp.

Because this is only 1994, the film has an inherent immediacy. At one point a photographer (a nicely understated Joaquin Phoenix) tells Paul that the western world will see the footage of the massacre and "go back to eating their dinners". Nick Nolte personifies the U.N.'s impotence in a snarling, frustrated performance (his best in recent memory) as the Colonel of the peacekeeping force. He also puts things into perspective for Paul when he tells him that the west "hates you". When the Belgian Intervention Force comes to remove any non-Rwandans, effectively leaving the rest of the population to kill each other, they bring with them a new kind of hate. These elements add up to a potential political powderkeg, but by concentrating on the Mille Collines, director Terry George's script (co-written with Keir Pearson) keeps the story very real and personal. Against a background of unfathomable atrocity, Paul attempts to maintain decorum while it feels like the country is disintegrating around him.

Surprisingly, given the care Mr. George takes in setting up the story and the fact that the real Paul Rusesabagina served as a consultant on the film, "Hotel" eventually suffers from quick resolutions. Help often comes from phone calls in a matter of moments and, since the backstory of the 100-day slaughter is given little screen time, the final attempted escape from the Mille Collines feels rushed and underexplained. But the film never feels long, I would have liked to see Mr. George go further with his resolution.

Ultimately, however, the film belongs to Don Cheadle as Paul and, not surprisingly, he walks away with it. Often relegated to small but memorable roles, Mr. Cheadle is more than up to the challenge presented here. To an extent, he is let down by the script, co-written by Mr. George and Keir Pearson, which has little to say about any characters other than Paul and his wife (a wonderful Sophie Okonedo). Their relationship shows humanity in the middle of unspeakable horror and keeps the film grounded.

It's hard to watch "Hotel Rwanda" without thinking of "Schindler's List". While Steven Spielberg's masterpiece was brutally graphic, Mr. George relies on his audience to fill in the gaps. There is little on screen violence in "Hotel" (it is surprisingly rated PG-13), but much unimaginable terror. "Schindler's List" had Nazis but there is no easy villain here. The film relies on its audience to connect the dots and ask who the real villain was. The answer might leave them feeling more uncomfortable that any graphic violence could have.

What did you think?

Movie title Hotel Rwanda
Release year 2004
MPAA Rating PG-13
Our rating
Summary The power in this true story of one hotel manager's attempt to shelter targets of the 1994 Rwandan genocide comes more from its topic and the performance of Don Cheadle than from Terry George's staid direction.
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