Credit where credit’s due: Terry George’s atrocity-docudrama Hotel Rwanda addresses that nation’s 1994 firestorm of civilian massacre without somehow contriving to place a white man at center stage. Instead, George has selected—essentially from Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families—the travails of Paul Rusesabagina, a manager at the Belgian-owned Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali, who not only survived the genocide but saved almost a thousand Tutsi refugees in the process. It’s a gut-twisting story handled, largely and predictably, with asbestos mitts. George, a victim of post-colonialist military force in Ireland (he did prison time as a Northern Irish republican) and of the Jim Sheridan martyr-to-injustice filmmaking school, does his best to keep the brow anchored in the middle and the unpalatable crisis safe for mass ingestion. Gourevitch’s book is an infinitely more harrowing experience. Michael Winterbottom might’ve stolen our breath. George, however, is careful not to ruin our evening out with too much bloody realism.
As Rusesabagina, Don Cheadle seems tamed by the effort to maintain a pan-African accent. The character is conceived in stock terms anyway, as a gently scheming servant to white power who becomes silently outraged when the U.N. forces (Nick Nolte presides as a self-disgusted colonel) jump ship and Rusesabagina and his family are left behind to face the Hutu Power uprising. It’s a complex issue, because the “civilized” trappings that Cheadle’s quick-thinking savior thought belonged to him as a quasi-European—cultured tastes, associations with powerful men, favors waiting to be repaid—are exactly what allowed him to defy the slaughter. However ham-fisted George is with exposition and pacing, he does a proficient job at presenting Rusesa- bagina’s plight as being one bloodthirsty confrontation after another, putting off massacre by bribery, deflected guilt, or even paranoid insinuation.
Hotel is thorough enough in its tactical view of history to make you wonder, despite the universal condemnation of international governments’ inaction, how any “peacekeeping” army could’ve stopped 80 percent of a population intent on cutting the other 20 percent into pulp with machetes. But only a scene on a misty, dawn-break back road, upon which Rusesabagina and his driver slowly realize they’ve been driving over hundreds of corpses and hundreds more lie ahead, leaves teeth marks. Mostly, the carnage—up to a million killed in three months, in a country smaller than Massachusetts—is told to us secondhand, or glimpsed in distant scuffles. Like the majority of movies about the last century of holocausts, Hotel Rwanda is as earnest and tasteful as its creators. To capture the white-hot terror of social calamity, someone a little more lawless and fierce might be called for.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 14, 2004