Don Cheadle stars as Paul Rusesabagina in the true story of a Rwandan man who saved over a thousand lives by harboring refugees in his hotel during the Hutu slaughtering of the Tutsi in 1994. Hotel Rwanda takes about ten or fifteen minutes to set itself up before it becomes a non-stop terrifying fight for life. Once the Hutu begin killing his friends and neighbors, Paul (a Hutu married to a Tutsi) is able to bribe the militia to spare his family. Once at the hotel, a Hutu employee provides constant menace — threatening to inform the militia on Paul. Protected by a meager cadre of U.N. peacekeepers, the hotel becomes a haven for orphans and and other Tutsi fleeing death. But safety there is never guaranteed, as the U.N. fails to excite interest from America, England, or France.
I can’t stress how harrowing this movie is. The refugees rarely get a moment’s peace. Even when Paul and his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), find such a moment, it ends with him begging her to flee with the children to the roof top and jump to their deaths rather than die by machete. Cheadle and Okonedo give two commendable performances that call for equal measures of strength and vulnerability. Nick Nolte is memorable as the U.N. colonel who does everything in his power to help Paul.
Director Terry George and co-writer Keir Pearson do not revel in violence or gore. They pick their moments, and those moments are powerful — perhaps none so stabbing as when Cheadle drives along a foggy riverbank that becomes too bumpy to drive on. When he stops the truck and peers through the fog, he sees that the road isn’t bumpy at all — it’s covered in corpses.
Hotel Rwanda is a nightmarish film that surely only scrapes the surface of the true-life human tragedy it chronicles. More than one million people were killed in the conflict, one that never became the urgent international concern is should have been. Joaquin Phoenix, playing American journalist Jack Daglish in the film, sums it up best when his character is provided safe passage out of the hotel. As he heads for his bus in the rain, a hotel employee runs after him with an umbrella. “No, don’t do that…” he says to the employee, who remains diligently after him, and who will surely be killed in a matter of time. “Jesus,” says Daglish. “I’m so ashamed.”
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Cheadle), Supporting Actress (Okonedo), Original Screenplay