- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

Given its subject matter — the heroism of an exceptionally humane and courageous man when confronted with organized political slaughter on the thresholds of his home and workplace — one hopes for a great, or at least profoundly stouthearted, contemporary movie in “Hotel Rwanda.”

Director and co-writer Terry George isn’t quite up to the daunting challenge. He settles for modest emotional and inspirational impact while trying to summarize an overwhelming social crisis.

So far no one else has attempted to make a well-meaning, mainstream dramatic feature about the ethnic killings in Rwanda in 1994, a national murder spree that claimed almost a million victims. An Englishman whose most ambitious earlier production was the television movie “A Bright Shining Lie,” Mr. George seems to lack an adequately imposing and haunting pictorial feel for the sinister and calamitous.

He does operate from an effectively intimate and disarming perspective, observing terror erupt and threaten to engulf a populace through a witness who seems an unlikely source of protection.

This physically slight, professionally polite and morally steadfast lifesaver was an authentic hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina. Admirably portrayed by Don Cheadle, he is a member of the predominant Hutu ethnic group, whose most bloodthirsty and vengeful partisans conspired in a machete-wielding reign of terror against the Tutsi minority, resented for generations as social and educational snobs.

Mr. Rusesabagina was obliged to resort to numerous ruses, including serial bribery, in order to shield the staff, guests and refugees who came to regard his Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali as their last refuge.

Government officials in several countries, including the United States, did little to intervene in a timely or decisive way when Hutu mobs and militia were piling up victims.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rusesabagina called in enough favors, fabricated enough deceptions and appeased enough potential cutthroats to preserve the lives of hundreds of people who became dependent on his charity and resourcefulness. Ultimately, his hotel sheltered more than a thousand refugees.

Never a physical threat to the armed and dangerous men he needs to placate, the hero reveals a flair for diplomatic brinkmanship, deference and evasion that rarely attracts the movies as worthy, heroic stuff.

Here it’s elevated as a frail but often successful survival strategy. Lives are spared because Paul Rusesabagina knows how to flatter the vanity of budding warlords or stall for time. Though not a flamboyant, effusive or naturally devious personality, he has protective affinities with Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler.

The pleas of Mr. Cheadle’s character eventually reach sympathetic corporate ears, definitely a surprise for moviegoers accustomed to Hollywood’s dim view of executive suites.

Jean Reno plays the chief operating officer of the Sabena Corp., which owns two hotels in Kigali and reacts speedily from Brussels to call in chits that will assist its besieged and faraway representative.

Sophie Okonedo, an electrifying surprise as a hooker in “Dirty Pretty Things,” proves emotionally essential as the hero’s spouse, Tatiana, an eminently respectable woman. There are also impressive performances from Fana Makoena and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as two of the strongmen Mr. Cheadle needs to supplicate.

They justify their presence far more than the billed guest stars, Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix, cast as a frustrated U.N. colonel and a photographer, respectively.

While “Hotel Rwanda” doesn’t fully justify lofty expectations, it’s a letdown of an honorable kind, one that merits humility and gratitude.

***

TITLE: “Hotel Rwanda”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional graphic violence, including some documentary images of massacre victims; occasional profanity and fleeting images of sexual abuse and exploitation)

CREDITS: Directed by Terry George. Screenplay by Keir Pearson and Mr. George. Cinematography by Robert Fraisse. Production design by Tony Burrough and Johnny Breedt. Costume design by Ruy Filipe. Music by Andrea Guerra, Rupert Gregson-Williams and Afro Celt Sound System

RUNNING TIME: 121 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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