Hotel Rwanda looks at Rwandan holocaust from singular vantage point
Hotel Rwanda is a genuinely decent film about appalling real-life events, and that decency is its greatest strength, in one sense, and a nagging limitation, in another.
Set during the unchecked genocidal civil war in Rwanda in 1994, the story centers on Paul Rusesabagina, manager of a four-star Kigali hotel, who opens his establishment to hundreds of refugees whose lives are in danger and works at the same time to arrange for quick and safe exits for as many as possible. He is credited with saving the lives of more than 1,200 people in the end.
Director Terry George and his co-writer Keir Pearson tell the story more or less from Rusesabagina’s perspective, and that method works beautifully in dramatizing the efforts of a smart, mild-mannered individual improvising reprieves and rescues for a multitude of strangers as well as his own family amid the mounting horror and madness of mass murders that would eventually take a million lives.
But this approach also means that the Rwandan holocaust is in part relegated to the role of generalized backdrop for the astonishing, and perhaps deceptively reassuring, accomplishments of Paul Rusesabagina. The near-superhuman heroism of an otherwise ordinary person is no small thing, and yet even the most glorious of humanitarian acts are unavoidably compromised—shadowed, dimmed, haunted—by the specter of a million dead.
To their credit, George, Pearson and actor Don Cheadle portray Rusesabagina not as a saint or demi-god, but rather as a shrewd, pragmatic, generous professional with a deep sense of family. As a resourceful purveyor of first-class hospitality in a chaotic society, he has the combined skills of the diplomat, the restaurateur and the con man. These qualities prove even more exceptional in the circumstances of 1994, but they also have everything to do with his being the exception rather than the rule.
Sophie Okonedo makes a powerful impression as Rusesabagina’s wife Tatiana, and Nick Nolte and Fana Mokoena are both good as the key military men, one from the UN peacekeepers and the other a brutal Hutu general, each of whom Rusesabagina skillfully cultivates with favors as insurance against assorted impending crises.
The Nolte character is the chief voice of the film’s dismay over Western governments’ neglect of the Rwandan calamity, but it is Rusesabagina’s heroism and hard-headed decency that speak loudest in the movie as a whole.