Don Cheadle is one of the best actors working in movies today, yet he always seems to be relegated to supporting roles where, as often as not, he steals the picture. After nearly 20 years in the business, he plays his first lead role in Hotel Rwanda as real-life hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who saved the lives of more than 1,200 refugees in one of the most horrifying episodes of the 1990s.
In 1994, in the central African nation of Rwanda, tribal tensions between the ruling Hutus and the Tutsis turned vicious. While the United Nations dithered and most of the world looked away, rampaging Hutu soldiers slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis in a blood grudge dating back to—and beyond—the days when Rwanda was part of the colonial Belgian Congo. Hotel Rwanda, directed by Terry George and written by George and Keir Pearson, recounts that tragic episode through the true story of Rusesabagina, the manager of the Belgian-owned Hotel Mille Collines in the capital city of Kigali.
As played by Cheadle, Paul is a smooth operator. He knows how to pamper his international guests, maintain the approving support of his European employers (keep in touch through fax and phone) and use a well-placed bribe of Cuban cigars or expensive Scotch to curry favor with local military officials. He is solicitous without being unctuous, and flattering without being sycophantic. Paul knows that he is very good at his job, and he takes justifiable pride in the fact. He knows how the world works, and he feels that he brings a touch of worldly sophistication to his corner of the world.
When the violence begins, prompted by a political assassination blamed on the “Tutsi cockroaches,” Paul is in a precarious position. He’s a Hutu himself, with the papers to prove it, but his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is Tutsi, and they get their first hint of trouble while visiting Tatiana’s brother and his family in a Tutsi quarter of Kigali. It begins with apparently random beatings (they watch through a crack in the fence while neighbors are brutalized and hauled away by a uniformed gang), but it’s clear that worse things are to come.
The next day, a throng of Tutsis comes to Paul for help; they know he’s Hutu, but they trust him to protect them. Paul’s own impulse is to protect his family, but his innate decency makes it impossible to turn away these neighbors. Throughout the next few weeks, as the massacre intensifies, more and more fugitives find their way to Paul’s hotel, and he is forced to draw on all the skills he has learned in his work to keep them from harm. This time, there is more than the feelings of pampered guests or his hotel’s reputation at stake, and Paul reveals a deep-seated heroism that he never knew he had. He wheedles, flatters, deceives and soothes the local Hutu officers, managing against all odds to keep them at bay.
Hotel Rwanda’s obvious inspiration is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List—and, having invited the comparison, the movie suffers somewhat for it. This is not the masterpiece that Spielberg’s film was, but there’s no dishonor in that. The great strength that anchors the movie is Cheadle’s performance. He shows us the moral quandary in which Paul finds himself, and we see how he unhesitatingly does the right thing, even though he is only too terribly aware of how one false step can bring a horrible death to himself, his family and the hundreds of strangers who come to depend on him.
Cheadle gets fine support from Okonedo, despite the fact that her role is a bit underwritten: She has little to do but periodically assure Paul that he is a good man. But Okonedo has dignity and presence, and strong rapport with Cheadle; in their hands, Paul and Tatiana are convincingly devoted to one another.
Nick Nolte is miscast as a U.N. commander hamstrung by timid diplomats and frustrated that he is limited to protecting white Europeans. Nolte’s raspy mumble can work for some characters, but a blue-helmeted soldier isn’t one of them; he seems to be coming off a two-week binge.
George’s pacing is deliberate, avoiding direct violence and overt melodrama. It’s a wise choice; George lets the story, and Don Cheadle’s towering performance, speak for themselves.