Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hotel Rwanda

I borrowed this DVD from a friend when the movie first came out, intent on watching Don Cheadle's acclaimed performance.  I never got around to it.  I always looked at the film as inevitably depressing, and I didn't know much about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and I always feel sketchy if I let a movie educate me on world events.  In the intervening years, I've educated myself to a point where, when I saw the movie available On Demand through my cable, I finally felt I was ready to watch it.

The movie takes place during the genocide, but thankfully is not a document of the killings.  Instead, it tells the tale of Paul (Don Cheadle), a manager for the finest hotel around.  Paul is very talented at using words to get what he wants; when that fails, bribery usually does the trick.  This serves him well as manager, allowing him to get his hands on high end cigars, liquor, and more.  These treats are not for him, but to gain favor with local politicians, international military leaders, and anyone else.  It's a good thing he is good at his job, because ethnic tensions in Rwanda reach their boiling point, with paramilitary groups of the Hutu ethnic majority gathering and executing any of the Tutsi minority they can find.  Paul is Hutu, but his wife (Sophie Okonedo) is Tutsi.  Seeing his neighborhood quickly becoming a war zone, Paul manages to sneak and bribe his family's way into the hotel.  There, he tries to keep things business-as-usual.  It doesn't really work.  First of all, a war was going on, just outside the hotel.  Secondly, it's the old any-port-in-a-storm rule.  The hotel quickly acts as a shelter for overflow from the United Nations camps, the Red Cross, and for war orphans.  Why don't the Hutu militias just attack the hotel?  Good question.  The answer seems to be because Paul maintains the image of a professional European hotel; it feels like another country, or at least an embassy.  That means that, if the locals attack, there could possibly be some retaliation from the Western world.  Seeing the importance of maintaining this image, Paul must keep the hotel running for appearances' sake, care for the refugees, and act as the support for his own family.  For a while, Paul has his hopes set on the United Nations sending in a peacekeeping force to stop the massacre, but that never happens.  The burden for saving the 1200+ refugees in his hotel ultimately falls on Paul's shoulders.

This is an important movie to watch.  Hearing the abstract numbers (about 800,000 dead in an area about the size of a New England state) doesn't really sink in.  Seeing people being shot in the streets is more effective.  Showing trucks drive over miles of road, clogged with dead bodies is better still.  This movie doesn't set out to over-horrify you, which is good.  This is an exhausting viewing experience, and I say that in the best way possible; at the time of this genocide, Americans were either upset over Kurt Cobain's suicide, or fascinated by OJ Simpson's car chase in a white Ford Bronco.  Sure, those are obviously important things, but I have no recollection of Rwanda from school or news at that time, and that embarrasses me.  Still, this could have easily become a testament to the horrific things humans do to each other, but director and co-writer Terry George wisely chose to avoid making this movie an unwatchable guilt trip.  Instead, we have these terrible things framing a true story of heroic humanitarianism.

I was surprised that this movie did not show off the director or cinematographer's skills more.  Usually, when directors make an "important" movie, they make sure to show their skills or make things a little artsy.  This movie is shot in a straightforward fashion, with no artistic embellishments.

The film clearly focuses on Cheadle's character, but there are several recognizable actors with supporting roles.  Nick Nolte plays a Canadian UN military forces member, and he delivers the best white-versus-black speech I have heard in a long while.  Joaquin Phoenix is a news cameraman that asks many questions about the Hutu and the Tutsi for the benefits of the viewers; since his character is essentially there for exposition, his role is less impressive.  Jean Reno makes a brief, uncredited cameo just for recognition purposes.  Cara Seymour is the Red Cross worker that helps Paul save refugees; she's not in the movie much, but I thought she did a pretty good job.  Sophie Okonedo plays Paul's wife, and it is a demanding performance; she basically spends the whole movie terrified.

As I mentioned earlier, though, the real acting burden belongs to Don Cheadle.  It's rare to see a movie about death and destruction where the hero is not a man of action.  There are several points where Cheadle's character reaches a breaking point, and you watch him crumble in private, only to put himself back together in front of others.  It's fairly common for a low-key drama to have a nuanced grieving performance given by the lead actor or actress; this movie is not low-key, but Cheadle is still able to channel that same sort of private, subtle performance here.  There are two great scenes in particular that show this off.  The first is when he tells his wife to kill herself and their kids if the hotel is invaded; this could have easily been overacted, but his control here made his loss of control later all the more effective.  The second scene is just Cheadle cleaning himself up after unwittingly stumbling upon thousands of fresh corpses.  Cheadle has always been pretty good, but this role really showed what he is capable of.

Despite Cheadle's performance, this isn't a movie I will ever watch over and over again.  That's probably not the point of this movie, I get that, but it should be a little better.  Joaquin Phoenix's character is a little too guilt-ridden and a little too clueless to not be offensive.  I understand that Americans don't know what Hutus and Tutsis are; I think a short prologue would have worked better than having a stupid American make obvious comments about how he can't tell the difference between the two groups (there's a racist joke there, but I'm passing it by).  I think it's funny that Nick Nolte's character expressed his guilt more creatively and accurately (basically, the West sees Africa as a crap pile) as a Canadian than Phoenix's American could.  I also would have enjoyed a little more time spent adding symbolism and the like to make this a little more technically interesting.  I'm not saying the movie needed a Schindler's List red jacket, but a few little touches would have been nice.  Other than that, though, this is an interesting subject with one excellent performance.

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