In 1994, Rwanda erupted with one of the worst massacres known to man, as the Tutsis were slaughtered by marauding Hutus. The genocidal campaign left a million people dead inside of three months, and most of the world turned a blind eye. Hotel Rwanda is based on the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who gave sanctuary to more than 1,200 Tutsi refugees, saving their lives while risking his own.
This is the first major motion picture to deal with the Rwandan tragedy and, naturally, it's an independent production. Big studios are too busy chucking money at movies about cartoon cats and choo-choo trains to finance films of such grand purpose. Director Terry George does quite a bit with very little support, overcoming a meager production value to deliver a film that is at once horrifying and uplifting, despite its flaws.
Don Cheadle plays Paul, a hotel manager who makes sure high-powered military men get the best bottles of liquor and enjoy restful stays at his resort. While driving around town, he hears a militant radio personality refer to Tutsis as cockroaches, but it doesn't cause him much worry. Just as we feel comfortable here in the United States, Paul feels that despite the hatred brewing around him, order will prevail. Then, the order to "cut down the tall trees" is given, and Paul's world instantly turns to hell.
His friends and children witness the grisly murders of innocent neighbors as men strike them down with machetes. Paul and an employee run over road obstructions and discover that their vehicle is actually passing over a sea of dead bodies in the film's most terrifying sequence. Journalists videotape the atrocities, and the world does little or nothing to prevent them from occurring.
George is addressing a massive subject here, and it's impossible for one film to do it complete justice. The acting by supporting players, production value and the simplified story regrettably reduce the film's effectiveness. Especially formulaic is Paul's relationship with his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and a depiction of the Hutus that is awfully shallow. Being that the film didn't receive big studio backing (George had to secure much of the money himself), some of the movie's shortcomings are understandable.
Those shortcomings are also overshadowed by the many moments that work, and a performance of tremendous power from Cheadle. He manages to capture the heroism of a man left alone by the world, yet determined to overcome evil at all costs. His work is deserving of the recognition it has been receiving from critic and awards groups.
Joaquin Phoenix has a small but effective role as a Western journalist who fully realizes that the rest of the world won't really give a damn about the horrors in Rwanda. Nick Nolte does good work as a U.N. officer with orders not to interfere in the battle between the Tutsis and Hutus. Nolte does a credible job displaying the frustration of a man who wants to get involved, but can't due to the "world order." The U.N. officers basically had to stand with their arms at their sides as bullets whizzed by their heads--an incredible reality.
While there's a better movie to be made on this subject, and I question whether anybody will ever have the guts to make it, Hotel Rwanda stands as an important film about a terrible time. This massacre happened just more than a decade ago, and it barely distracted the world public from the latest Seinfeld episode. How many massacres like this will be allowed to occur in the modern era? Probably quite a few, I'm afraid, given humankind's lousy record.