Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Don Cheadle Sells Another Painful Expose On The Real World With Hotel Rwanda.

The Good: Excellent acting, pace, characters, ? DVD Extras
The Bad: Minor character development issues
The Basics: Don Cheadle performs another role where a man is surrounded by utter misery, in this case the genocide in Rwanda that most of the world let happen.

I've been on a Don Cheadle kick lately. I recently rewatched Boogie Nights (reviewed here!) and Crash (reviewed here!) and found his commentaries to be insightful and enjoyable. He's easily one of the more neglected great actors of our time and I suspect I'll actually make an effort to hunt down more of his works in the near future. Of course, it might be a few days. After all, Cheadle has a tendency to play characters who are caught in horrific personal or professional situations or dilemma's. I'm still reeling from watching the last film I hunted down because he was in it: Hotel Rwanda.

Set in the early 1990s, Paul Rusesabagina is managing the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda when the U.N. peacekeeping force withdraws following the collapse of the peace treaty between the Hutu and the Tutsis. As the Hutu military sweeps through the neighborhoods slaughtering any Tutsis it can find, Paul finds himself sheltering Tutsi refugees within the classy hotel following the departure of all of the Europeans. Paul has a rather personal stake in his risky endeavor to save his neighbors; his wife is Tutsi, as are many of his family members.

As Paul is systematically abandoned by all of his allies in Rwanda, he finds himself bribing the local Hutu military leader to keep the hotel protected. Paul and his refugees know influential people outside Rwanda and they begin making telephone calls to leaders in other - primarily European - nations in the desperate attempt to save their own lives. When the U.N. peacekeepers return to extract those who have been granted visas to escape the genocide, one of Paul's workers contacts the Hutu militias to have them slain.

Hotel Rwanda is an exceptionally difficult film to watch. When I finished watching it, one of my friends called and asked me what I thought of the film. Still wiping away tears - literally - I said, "I've never been so ashamed of being American as when I was watching that film." Given the last few years in American History, that's saying quite a bit. But after two hours of watching Rwandan's being slaughtered - cinematically - and knowing how closely it was based on reality while the only sound from the United States is an attempt to split hairs on the difference between "genocide" and "acts of genocide" as a reason to not intervene. It's pretty shameful.

While the United States is physically absent from Hotel Rwanda, Belgium and Canadians in the U.N. Peacekeeping forces do what they can to save the lives that no one else will. Nick Nolte plays Colonel Oliver, who explains the lack of involvement from the rest of the world - especially America - as an issue of color. Sadly, his words ring the most true in the film and it's troubling to watch.

In short, it's not entertaining. Arguably, this is not supposed to be an entertaining film, it is supposed to shock and horrify the viewer. It is intended to unsettle us and it works admirably. But one immediately wonders why director Terry George opted for a drama with fictional license as opposed to a documentary. Hotel Rwanda has a musical score and recognizable actors that express the message fine, but also insinuate that there is some entertainment value to watching the genocide occur. Unlike other recent films exploring brutality in Africa, like Blood Diamond, this does not tread so close to the sensationalist. As it is, it exists in an uncomfortable buffer zone between capturing the whole truth and telling a story that is very personal and horrific.

And it certainly succeeds at being horrific; the refugees hiding out in the Hotel are insulted, menaced and brought out at gun point several times in the course of the film and after an hour of witnessing such brutality - or more often, the effects of it left over in the streets outside the hotel - the audience begins to feel they are being dragged out every time the protagonists are. It's unsettling and by the end of the film, the viewer is likely to be disheartened.

Yes, after all the bloodshed, we do not expect the catharsis of anything remotely near a happy ending. For citizens in the United States, maybe that's a good thing. Our complacency makes us culpable. Hotel Rwanda reminds the viewers that we have a stated moral imperative to never allow genocide to happen again. But hey, in Rwanda, they're black, so it's not so bad. It's been six hours since I watched the film and my stomach is still tight. This is a very effective film and it's likely to horrify the nerve dulled population.

Who am I kidding? Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, nightly news footage of rendition, torture and warfare in Iraq, bombings and walls in Israel and Palestine, school shootings, none of this touches the American psyche anymore. Certainly, we want it to. But when it comes time to act, we stir our t.v. dinners, we send a check to the ACLU and we pluck our hangnails. The citizens of the United States, en masse, may sympathize, might want to empathize, but they are not willing to risk the political instability of removing from power any and all people who are complaint in acts of war, genocide or indifference against either or both. Using films like Hotel Rwanda as some perverse form of entertainment, we dull our population until the next major tragedy in American history and then we let ourselves be manipulated in our fear into whatever whomever appears strongest suggests.

It's enough to disgust one for being American.

Where's the hope, then? What's the purpose of the film that makes it essential to see? It is only through works like this where the audience is forced to be made uncomfortable that there is any hope at all. When none of the population is unsettled, the soul of the nation is truly dead. We might be close, but we're not there yet. The purpose of watching Hotel Rwanda is to act as a witness and renew ourselves to the concept behind the simple words "Never Again." It's time we say it with conviction and mean it; preparing to back it up with more than just bumper stickers.

And Terry George's Hotel Rwanda does what it intends to well. A large chunk of the kudos must go to Don Cheadle. Cheadle humanizes the struggle from his opening moments of complete disbelief in the situation. He embodies the voices of reason, that peace will work, that the world will not stand by for such slaughter, that international medical workers have some safety to travel throughout the streets, and that Paul can actually save those within the hotel. Cheadle plays a man of privilege waking up to a world of barbarism and he plays the transitions in Paul's character masterfully while presenting throughout the sense that this is the same man.

Cheadle's acting is joined by decent performances by Nick Nolte (Colonel Oliver) and Sophie Okonedo (Paul's wife Tatiana). But others are either not so gifted as Cheadle or misdirected by George. Most notably, is the traitorous hotel worker who betrays Paul and the refugees. Prior to his betrayal, he and Paul make a supply run only to find themselves driving over the bodies of the fallen and finding their way blocked by hundreds more corpses. In those scenes, there appears to be a transformation in the character, yet it's almost the next scene where he turns on Paul, making it seem like either the actor was misdirected, a poor actor or intended to manipulate the viewer. The last option would be most cheap and the film seems quite above that.

I'll be honest; usually when I review DVDs, I try to be thorough and watch all the bonus features and listen to the commentaries. I couldn't do that this time. I simply could not bring myself to watch the film again with the commentary track on, nor to go through the featurettes chronicling the real genocide in Rwanda. They are there, the extras seem to largely bring reality to the viewer's mind, but after two hours of this I just couldn't do that to myself.

As a simple consumer, I have that option. The victims of Rwandan genocide, of course, did not.

For other works with Joaquin Phoenix, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Walk The Line
U Turn


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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