Although Hotel Rwanda falls short on its potential for drama, strong peformances and a tragic topic make for an impacting film.
More than 10 years ago, trouble began in Rwanda that resulted in the genocide of nearly 1 million people at the hands of rebels. Terry George’s new film is the true story of one man’s struggle to save the lives of his family and other innocent people during this time of extreme unrest.
Hotel Rwanda focuses mainly on the actions of a luxury hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle). At the beginning of the film, Rusesabagina grants the wishes of prominent guests of the four-star Hotel de Mille Collines. He offers them the best of everything in the hope that they will repay the favor when needed.
Rusesabagina quickly learns that his favors are not easily returned as the peace keeping Rwandan president’s plane is shot down and the rebel Hutus start killing innocent Tutsi people. The strife between the Hutus and Tutsis is briefly explained as follows: while Rwanda was under Belgian influence, the people were divided into two classifications. Based upon appearance and wealth, the Tutsis were given better jobs, education and financial opportunities. The Hutus naturally resented this and rebelled.
As the Hutu guerillas begin the slaughter of Tutsi people, Rusesabagina brings his family to the shelter of the hotel as a United Nations-protected sanctuary. Rusesabagina’s wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is Tutsi and will be killed if found. He uses the bargaining powers of alcohol and money to keep the rebel army at bay and the hotel a refuge. The United Nations is able to get the foreign visitors out, but Rusesabagina and the other Rwandans who found shelter at the hotel are left behind, nearly defenseless.
The film shows the struggle for survival with days of bribes and strategic moves by those left at the hotel. The United Nations finally pulls them to safety over the Hutu borders. The film ends on an upbeat note, with Rusesabagina not only saving the lives of his family, but also about 1,000 Tutsis.
Overall, the film is effective and powerful. The story of Rusesabagina is heroic and definitely worth merit. However, the film seems a little too one-sided. Hotel Rwanda focuses so closely on the story of those at the hotel that it fails to capture the larger scope of the tremendous loss. For a film dealing with mass genocide, it actually lacks the violence that may have made a more powerful impact. Though violence is implied and dead bodies are shown, it does not convey the staggering number of deaths that actually resulted.
Yet the performances in the film add some of that missing emotional punch. Cheadle has had many fantastic supporting roles but is finally given the lead that he deserves. He plays Rusesabagina with such heart and skill that he is a good contender for the Golden Globe for Best Actor.
The supporting cast also gives excellent performances. Okonedo plays his wife with the perfect mix of strength and vulnerability. Nick Nolte is smart and effective as the frustrated U.N. Col. Oliver. Joaquin Phoenix contributes a small role as the American journalist who captures truly daunting news footage.
Hotel Rwanda is a disturbing, potent, effective film that should be an eye-opening experience for many. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that this tragedy is barely spoken about outside world studies classes and nearly forgotten when it occurred just years ago.