MGM // 2004 // 122 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Diane Wild (Retired) // April 25th, 2005
When the world closed its eyes, he opened his arms.
The Rwandan civil war of 1994 led to the slaughter of up to 1 million people over the course of a few months -- primarily of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, but also moderate members of the majority Hutu who did not support the militias and their genocidal agenda.
Despite the United Nation's charter to prevent genocide, the international community turned its back on Rwanda. The US State Department defined the events as "acts of genocide" to distinguish them from "genocide" -- the magic word that would have compelled them to act, based on their ratification of the UN's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Hotel Rwanda is the story of one Rwandan's response to the realization that he and his countrymen stood alone. It is based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, whose actions helped save over 1,200 Rwandan refugees.
Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle, Traffic) is the well-connected assistant manager of the five-star Milles Collines hotel in Kigali, Rwanda. When his country begins to dissolve into ethnic violence and chaos, Paul watches as his neighbor is beaten and taken away, saying "there is nothing we can do" while he leads his family back to the safety of their home.
When troops arrive at his door, however, he can't ignore the broken-down politics of his country any longer. Paul is Hutu, while his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo, Dirty Pretty Things), is Tutsi, making her and their children targets of the escalating violence. Desperate to save them, he bribes the militia to free his family and then, unable to leave their friends and neighbors behind, he gathers even more valuables to save their lives. They take refuge in the Milles Collines, which offers protection not only because of its status, but because of the UN peacekeeping soldiers stationed outside.
When a Red Cross worker drops off a van full of Tutsi orphans for safekeeping, because the militias are attempting to wipe out the next generation of "cockroaches," Paul can't turn them away. Little by little, the Milles Collines becomes a refuge and Paul its reluctant caretaker. Day by desperate day, he makes well-placed bribes to keep the violence at bay and to get supplies for the burgeoning -- and nonpaying -- hotel guests.
When the peacekeeping forces withdraw and the intervention forces are sent in with the sole mission of evacuating the remaining Europeans, Paul realizes the world has turned a blind eye to his country and that their survival will come down to the power of the individual.
Hotel Rwanda is not a movie about war. It's a movie about a man -- a man who becomes a hero by attrition. Paul Rusesabagina is no Hollywood-sized superhero. His connections gave him the power to help, but his nobility is the nobility of the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, doing what he can because there is no one else to do it.
The initial scenes set up Paul's isolationist, self-preserving attitudes that are going to be stripped away. Pronouncements such as "I have no time for politics" and "this is business" and "family is all that matters" as he goes about running the hotel give way to almost a resignation that he must help because he can. However, even when the Milles Collines has begun to resemble a refugee camp, he can't fathom the reality that his world has crumbled beyond repair. "Soon all of this will be over. What if I lose my job?" he frets to Tatiana. Knowing what we know -- that he is far more likely to lose his life -- it's a ridiculous concern, but it's also a very human concern, and shows the finer side of this film's characterizations. By the end, he is fighting without hesitation to do what he can as the last hope for the people who arrive at the doors of the Milles Collines.
Don Cheadle is consistently fabulous in any role he takes on, and as wonderful as Sophie Okonedo and many of the supporting actors are, they fade into the background of what is obviously Cheadle's movie. His Paul at the beginning is not oblivious -- we see his concern behind the façade of the perfect host and perfect businessman. In his interactions with Tatiana, however, we see his fear and his conviction as he becomes a reluctant hero who fights for survival in increments. The cracks in his calm demeanor begin to show, culminating in one powerful scene where he locks himself in a room for an emotional release -- alone, because his strength is all that is holding so many people together.
Amid the horrors of the situation, there is some humor and a lot of humanity, brought out in the small moments between Paul and his wife. The movie is not a bleak lesson in how the world should be ashamed of their inaction. It is an uplifting account of a man who has much to fight for. In a more somber moment, we see a demonstration of how people are relegated to the status of a commodity, with an actual monetary worth, as Paul pays to save his family. But we see a lighter take on this idea when Paul engineers a romantic moment for Tatiana, then reveals that after first meeting her, he bribed her bosses to have her transferred to Kigali so he could woo her. In these lighter moments, especially, the movie shows us the ordinary people who can make a difference, and avoids casting them as heroes and victims.
The opening sequences of the movie act as an education for those of us who know little about the conflict, and while it's a necessary education, it's done with no sophistication. The biggest weakness of the film is its use of ill-defined secondary characters to provide the context of the story, as a shortcut to explain the background to the Rwandan situation. Jack, a news cameraman played by Joaquin Phoenix, bears the brunt of this treatment. It is up to him to ask about the details of the ethnic divisiveness, resulting in a speech about the history of Rwandan politics. And it is his awkward dialogue that points out that on an individual level, there is little separating the Hutu and Tutsi -- a point that had already been woven into the story more subtly in many ways. But the filmmakers thought we still needed a scene where Jack discovers that one woman he encounters in a bar is Hutu while her friend is Tutsi, and says "they could be twins!"
Nick Nolte fares slightly better as the UN colonel who does what he can to protect the refugees and preserve the peace but, when the violence escalates, is forced to tell Paul that they will be withdrawing and can offer no immediate help to Rwandans trying to flee the country. He does have the awkwardly expository job of conveying the "why" to the audience, voicing the opinion that the color of their skin has led to the Rwandans abandonment. However, in a lesser movie, the individuals acting on behalf of the global powers and world press would be portrayed as evil and uncaring themselves. Instead, we see their shame. The movie rarely focuses on the bigger picture -- and it's at its weakest when it does -- but it generally excels in capturing the drama on an individual level.
Jack and the reporter he works with are the token nod to the world press, who brought footage of the massacre to the western world only to have it ignored. We see a recreation of the news footage of machete attacks, but it is distanced from the audience, shown on a small monitor on the reporter's desk as the characters look on. The movie, which is rated PG-13, remains surprisingly bloodless, though there are haunting images to remind us of the violence around the "oasis of calm" that is the Milles Collines. The power of the movie is emotional, not visceral.
The DVD arrives with a good, though not great, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Some minor edge enhancement and compression artifacts are evident, but overall the picture is sharp with well-defined colors and image detail. The English soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, and provides wonderfully clear dialogue and ambient sounds, punched up by the rear channels during action sequences. A French Dolby Digital 2.0 is also available.
The Rwandan genocide may have been ignored, but the movie was not. The filmmakers used its Oscar nominations and critical and box office success to turn some attention to Amnesty International. The DVD comes with an appeal by Don Cheadle and a response card mentioning the current crisis in Darfur, Sudan. In the extras, director and co-writer Terry George hammers home the point: "It's going on again in Sudan, it's going on again in the Congo, and no one's doing anything."
Fittingly, the extras are heavily weighed on the social impact of the movie rather than the filmmaking process or the stars behind the screen. For star power, Don Cheadle and musician Wyclef Jean offer commentary on selected scenes, but their thoughtful if sparse comments focus on the message of the film and, for Cheadle, the difficulty in acting something so far outside his own experience.
Two featurettes, "A Message For Peace: Making Hotel Rwanda" and "Return to Rwanda," highlight the real Paul Rusesabagina, who acted as a consultant on the film. We do get some insight into the evolution of the script, which began as a Traffic-like account of the civil war, but was tightened to focus on the story of Paul and Tatiana. But for the most part, the documentaries are a behind the scenes peek into Rwanda and Paul more than the movie. Rusesabagina also partners with George on the commentary, explaining details of the real-life story, to which -- despite some composite characters and invented scenes -- the movie stayed quite faithful.
Though George in his comments and in the script blames racism for the global indifference, Rusesabagina points out that the American's bad experience in Somalia was a factor, as was the fact that the international community had no interests in Rwanda, a nation that exports only coffee and tea. It's another realization that the movie lacks the storytelling ability to convey those nuances, but I still maintain that this is a film that rises above the flaws of its script. It does not pretend to be an exhaustive exploration of the Rwandan war. By tightening his focus on the individual level, George has sidestepped some of the criticism I could level at its treatment of the bigger picture.
What the movie lacks in finesse, it more than makes up for in power. I wouldn't call it a great film in the grand sense of the word "great," but I will without hesitation attach that word to the acting and emotional heart of the film, and that's more than enough to qualify this as a worthy addition to a collection.
There's a lot of guilt to spread around here, but not for anyone associated with the movie.
Review content copyright © 2005 Diane Wild; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 122 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "A Message for Peace: Making Hotel Rwanda" documentary
* "Return to Rwanda" featurette
* Commentary by director Terry George and Paul Rusesabagina
* Selected scene commentary by Don Cheadle
* Select commentary by Wyclef Jean
* Official Site