It is no accident that Terry George’s scathing historical tragedy “Hotel Rwanda” has materialized in theaters right before the Iraqi vote. Telling the true story of an upper-middle class Rwandan family caught in 1994’s genocide, the film does not hold back politically. Going a step beyond a mere indictment of American foreign policy inaction, George administers a full-fledged slap to the national face.
Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is a smart and likeable four-star hotel manager who knows exactly which army general likes which kind of scotch and where to get the best Cuban cigars. When his home city of Kigali descends into fighting as the Hutu begin massacring the rivals Tutsis, Paul takes refuge in the UN-protected hotel with his wife (Sophie Okonedo), kids and many Tutsi friends. Although Hutu himself, Paul’s wife is Tutsi, and he is considered a traitor for harboring her. Hope can only come from the UN or United States, but both refuse help.
Crowded around a small radio, the Rusesabagina family can only listen in stunned silence as then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright denies Rwanda the definition of genocide, thereby preventing the deployment of troops. Abandoned, Paul must use his wits to prevent the murder of everyone in the hotel.
While the action sequences are harrowing, the most effective scenes focus on the torment caused by the world’s blatant cold shoulder. It is impossible to remain unmoved when watching a line of milky-white tourists leaving the besieged hotel under sunny yellow umbrellas, boarding the bus sent to take them home, vacation spoiled, as their black counterparts cry for help. Right before they pull away to safety, one man even snaps a picture. Whether it’s intended for the UN or for his own personal scrapbook is unclear.
George is at great pains to portray the similarities between western and Rwandan culture, yet he does not shy away from racism. Family values and honest work are touchstones of Paul’s life, just as with ours. Yet, in a shocking speech, he is told by a white friend in the U.N., Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte), that he is dirt to the whites of the world. The pain of this devaluation manifests itself in frequent blasts of rage that echo through the picture unrestrained.
In the skilled throats of Cheadle and Nolte, not one of these outbursts comes across as cliched. The fact that Cheadle even made it into the film is miraculous in itself. George wrote the lead for Cheadle but none of the major studios would fund his project without a big-name actor in the role. Refusing to use Denzel Washington, George struck out on his own, funding a significant portion of the film himself. Cheadle does not disappoint: he does wonders with the part, at one point turning the act of tightening the tie around his neck into a figurative hanging. Nolte remains much more subdued than usual, making his anger all the more powerful. Rarely seen on the screen (due, apparently, to personal problems) he gives this rare appearance gravity.
Far from stopping the buck at American leadership, “Hotel Rwanda” has the courageous gall to blame the average jaded nightly-news watcher, who, says a news cameraman in the film, simply turns off the TV and eats dinner instead of calling a congressman in outrage. Very consciously trying to avoid a similar reaction, George offsets his lecture with skilled camera-work and even touches of comedy. But, overflowing with emotion, if it weren’t for the seriousness of the subject matter, “Hotel Rwanda” might be too much.
With suspenseful music and grotesque death, “Rwanda” plays like a horror film at times. But here, the monsters aren’t from beyond the grave. George uses the claustrophobic environment of the hotel to his advantage, never letting up on the adrenaline during the film’s final panic moments. Terrifying images of a world gone mad linger: a teddy bear impaled on a machete used as a threat, hundreds of unburied bodies blanketed in mist.
“Hotel Rwanda” is one of those rare laborious works that bravely transcends entertainment, popular culture and art to grasp at the cold, hard truth.