Hotel Rwanda (2004, Terry George)


Terry George’s 2004 fearjerker Hotel Rwanda is a compassionate outcry, a human mourning, a celebration of courage, a worldly film of our time… but also a model of economy, a relic of old Hollywood in its clarity, its relentlessness, its dry and forceful, uncluttered storytelling. Perhaps it isn’t as admirably unsentimental as another true-facts film of the same year, Downfall, but that’s the price it pays for being far more accessible. The devastating immediacy is worth the price.

The story tells of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, a strong and good typical guy who is unexpectedly swept into extraordinary circumstances and proves himself generous beyond all of his own expectations, his self-sacrifice and heroism enough to, in the director’s words, “shame us all.” Paul shelters a thousand refugees of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a long and bitter walk on thin ice. The Schindler’s List comparisons are obvious, and surface virtues are shared: both films have story thrust that puts most action movies to shame despite their subject matter, both films are remarkably absorbing in their effortless command of history and humanity.

But Hotel Rwanda is a different kind of movie, one just as stunning in some respects but ultimately less visceral and profound. The storytelling is beyond reproach. The filmmaking itself may have less validity — Schindler’s is a masterfully directed film; Hotel Rwanda is straightforward, even generic in cinematic terms, albeit competent. Steven Speilberg’s phenomenal actors certainly did plenty to make his film work, but Terry George really steps back and allows the franchise to be essentially run by the two leads and their believable warmth and even occasional humor, the outstanding Sophie Okonedo (portraying Rusesabagina’s wife) and protagonist Don Cheadle, who is more or less the auteur of the picture.

One could argue that the anonymity of the camera adds to the poignance of the story; I don’t believe that to be the case. Of course the story becomes personal in a protracted and garish sort of way, but it’s always just rote and artless enough to retain its PSA-like distance. This is only a minor debit, however, because the movie gets so close to treating its story perfectly, and goes all the way in a couple of scenes (namely, the horribly beautiful sequence in which Cheadle discovers the piles of bodies in the fog, and the outstanding, infinitely sophisticated one-man show of Cheadle searching for his family after he believes they have killed themselves — one of the most impressive and harrowing scenes in any film of the last decade, not least because it ends with a joke). Despite still mining its real-life story for high drama, it’s palpably reality, a necessity most true-story pictures miss.

Hotel Rwanda is reputed to belong to the genre of the “feel like shit” movie: these things are happening in the world and you’re not doing anything, these things happened and you sat there. The film even calls out the audience — or their establishments, at least — specifically for its lack of action. (Personally, I suspect that U.S. military intervention would have worsened this massacre; we worsen everything else.) But the mastery here of George and Chadle is in the camaraderie felt with Paul, the force of identification. The truth is, he is another dude minding his own business — paying people off, schmoozing with the richies — until the shit hits the fan, and then he’s as surprised by his greatness and kindness as anyone. There’s a universal integrity to that. He is you and me; maybe he’s even Hitchcock’s wrong man or Spielberg’s everyman in a sense. Whatever the specifics of the chemical reactions that make all this work, in addition to being powerful, sad, distressing, and insightful, Hotel Rwanda is hugely entertaining… and it shouldn’t be. I admire that intensely.

[Originally posted in 2007. A couple of sentences altered for clarity.]

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