How much genocide do we have to witness before we conclude that the current human race is well beyond salvage?
In Bosnia, America stepped in to help stop an anti-Muslim slaughter. In Ethiopia, the urban government is slowly exterminating the Anuak mountain culture. In Rwanda, an ethnic power struggle a decade ago left nearly a million dead. In Sudan, just last week, peace at last -- for as long as it lasts. And those were just the ones that made the evening news.
Hotel Rwanda tells a true story about the struggle between the Hutus and the Tutsis, two cultures whose small physical differences were exploited by Belgian colonials as a way to keep order. Naturally, when the Europeans left, all hell broke loose, and in 1994, with an accord at hand, someone assassinated the country's peace-minded president. Civil war, and its concomitant slaughter, naturally followed.
To recall this history close up, the politically minded Irish writer/director Terry George (In the Name of the Father) focuses on Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the house manager at the Mille Collines, a four-star hotel, owned by a respected Belgian firm, located in a verdant patch of Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
When strife breaks out, foreign nationals leave the country (along with foreign commitment to help), and a thousand or so refugees -- some Hutus (like Paul), some Tutsis (or "cockroaches," as the Hutus call them) -- pour into the hotel, seeking safe shelter from the machine guns and machetes around them. And so the political becomes very personal as Paul, using his polished Western business savvy -- he knows well the language of money, diplomacy and comfort -- grasps every string and desperately pulls them all to save the lives of his family and his terrified refugee guests.
The result is a lean, tough, edifying, polished docu-drama that never quite feels as palpable as a documentary, but that surely will reach more people. George tells Paul's story intimately, cutting away often enough for those inexplicable moments that make you wonder how we, in our "civilized" united nations, could have let it all go on. Nick Nolte plays a compassionate but rather powerless U.N. peacekeeper ("we're here to keep the peace, not make it"), and Joaquin Phoenix is an intrepid American who's wise enough to know that people will go right on eating their dinner after they watch his newsreel footage of the massacre (Paul, wrongly, disputes his pessimism).
George alternates his storytelling from scenes of Paul's comfortable, complacent, all-American, African-middle-class life -- a reminder that much of Africa is not what we imagine -- with the growing political turmoil that finally forces him to get involved. Cheadle, an often-combustible and quirky character actor, performs Paul (who now lives safely in Belgium) with measured intensity, and watching him maintain a steely humanity in the face of burgeoning genocide is a singular dramatic achievement that stands apart from the statistics lying dead around him.