Somewhere around the half-million-dead mark of the 1994 genocide depicted in Hotel Rwanda, a U.N. peacekeeper (Nick Nolte) explains the bottom line to hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle): “The superpowers . . . they think you’re dirt . . . dung. You’re not even a nigger. You’re African.” A more concise summation of U.S. realpolitik you couldn’t ask for. Still, while Hotel Rwanda is an emotionally grueling film, director Terry George seems skittish about going too deeply or bloodily into the damning details of this particular heart of darkness.
For years, Rwanda suffered under Belgian rule, during which time warring tribes, Tutsis and Hutus, were forced to share land. At the time of the events in Hotel Rwanda, the Hutus, having gained power, are trying to exterminate the Tutsi minority. Nearly 1 million will die.
And so, George’s film is a tale of imperialism’s long-term blowback, as seen from Rusesabagina’s viewpoint of ultimately bogus privilege. A smooth operator running a four-star hotel in the capital city of Kigali, Rusesabagina bribes aggressors from both sides with cash, single-malt scotches, and favors, at first because he thinks the conflagration will blow over and then, when it doesn’t, to save his family. A multinational military elite is sent to evacuate the rich white folks, U.N. forces prove useless without superpower support, and the genocidal energies hit critical mass. Soon Rusesabagina is packing the hotel with children and refugees, eventually saving the lives of 1,268 people.
Cheadle is quietly terrific as a guy whose heroism is a logical outgrowth of a basic, no-big-deal sort of decency. But he needs something from the other side of the lens to make convincing the slow crumbling of his larger dream—to assimilate into a Western culture that has no problem forgetting he even exists.
After his hero stumbles on a corpse-strewn killing field, George finds a metaphor for Rusesabagina’s central conflict, as he tries to rip his smart European suit off his body. But the camera just sits there, visually stranding Cheadle. George’s unembroidered directing style—often effectively deadpan—is finally too dry for the miserable poetry of such a realization.
Still, only a charter member of the dead-soul set could remain unmoved during the film’s devastating finale. There’s Schindler’s List-like inspirational value in Rusesabagina’s story, but it’s dwarfed by that near-million dead. The film’s cumulative tone, to George’s credit, is more of aching elegy than sugarcoated triumph.