Northern Ireland-born Terry George, who was once interned for being a suspected IRA member, has an understandable tendency toward working on what used to be called “problem pictures” — the sort of movies that address social injustice.
He co-authored the screenplay for Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, co-wrote (again with Sheridan) and directed Some Mother’s Son and collaborated a third time with Sheridan on The Boxer — all films about “the troubles” in Northern Ireland. All of those films approach their issues through the stories of individuals, rather than attacking the problem in a faceless overview.
It’s not surprising, then, that George uses the same approach in Hotel Rwanda, his film on the 1994 tribal massacres in Rwanda. Instead of focusing on the genocide of the Tutsi tribe at the hands of the ruling Hutus, his film centers on real-life hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who helped save 1200 Tutsi lives by turning the hotel into a kind of refugee camp and using his skills at diplomacy, bribery, outright lying and even a bit of blackmail.
Despite the film’s PG-13 rating, George does not shy away from the horrors of the events (there are few things more chilling than discovering why a drive down a dark road seems unaccountably bumpy), but he keeps them recognizably human by centering on Paul and the way he handles the situation.
It’s this approach that makes Hotel Rwanda work on a dramatic basis, and it’s the character of Paul that gives the film its greatest power.
While the Oscar nominations this year are a sadly reactionary lot (which perhaps says more about the political climate than it does about the state of the movies), Cheadle’s nomination for best actor provides a notable exception. (He won’t win — not against Jamie Foxx’s safer Ray Charles and Johnny Depp’s cozy J.M. Barrie — but he ought to.)
A good bit has been written about the way the character uses all the schmoozing techniques he’s learned to deal with the situation at hand, but little, if anything, has been said about the price Paul pays for those well-honed abilities. Here is a man who has put all his faith in his white Belgian employers and done his best to learn their ways and master them. And while those ways become useful, he also finds that his bosses cannot actually do anything to help him. The secure future he expected to result from all his efforts is ultimately an illusion. He doesn’t even have the respect of his Rwandan employees; to get them to follow his instructions, he first has to have his bosses fax a letter of authority to him.
The very things Paul has learned to value — from the power of his employers to that of the U.N. peacekeeping force — become valueless. Moreover, even the carefully learned lessons in bribery take him only so far.
The import of this is all the greater because Paul is a Hutu who has gone beyond his roots and married a Tutsi (Sophie Okonedo, Dirty Pretty Things). As a result, even though he ought to be safe from the “cleansing,” his family and his wife’s family are not. Paul has become a man completely outside his origins and deserted by the society he has adopted.
It is this complexity, along with Cheadle’s ability to convey the sense of it all, that raises the movie head and shoulders above the standard sort of well-meaning, socially conscious film where the importance of the subject is mistakenly applied to the film. Hotel Rwanda could very easily have been one of those movies, and in some ways it comes perilously close. George’s directorial style in and of itself is more utilitarian than exciting.
He’s made a good film, but it’s Cheadle who pushes the movie to at least near-greatness. Sophie Okonedo offers splendid help onscreen, as does an uncharacteristically subdued Nick Nolte, who plays a U.N. colonel who is frustrated by the limitations of his assignment but keeps trying to do whatever he can. However, it’s really Cheadle’s movie, and it’s his carefully layered, deeply moving performance that makes Hotel Rwanda essential viewing. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke