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Talented cast adds heart to ‘Rwanda’

Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Director Terry George’s “Hotel Rwanda” is based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who became trapped in the crossfire of a civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis, two warring Rwandan sects. The film itself is an emotional rollercoaster that never loses sight of either the grander scope of the conflict or the humanistic struggle of individual people.The real-life genocide, which occurred in 1994, is not the focus of “Hotel Rwanda,” but it forms the backdrop for the plot. Thanks to some very well-executed exposition, the audience is given a clear understanding of the conflict and the differences between the two sides. “Hotel Rwanda” avoids demonizing either side, instead focusing on Rusesabagina and his struggle to protect his family and the people trapped in his hotel, which eventually becomes a haven for Rwandan refugees. This gives face and voice to the slaughter, which claimed an unthinkable 800,000 lives over 100 days. The plot then revolves around Rusesabagina’s political and personal maneuvering to try to protect his family and the occupants of his hotel.The film is anchored by Don Cheadle’s strikingly human performance. Cheadle has always been an impressive and under-appreciated actor, despite fine performances in films like “Traffic.” His character, the real-life Rusesabagina, starts out as a smooth-talking businessman before slowly transforming into a desperate crusader who risks his life for his family and the occupants of the hotel. His character and performance is by turns charismatic, confident, fearful and desperate. Cheadle makes it all believable in a way that allows the audience to connect with his character. Both he and Sophie Okonedo, who plays his Tutsi wife Tatiana, garnered deserved Oscar nominations. Nick Nolte rounds out the cast – playing a good guy, for once – as a helpless, but sympathetic, United Nations colonel and Joaquin Phoenix as a cynical reporter.It’s difficult for a film like “Hotel Rwanda” to avoid didacticism, but thankfully it never becomes mired in excessive preaching. There is some over-dramatization of events and the presentation often has the subtlety of a brick through a window, but the sledgehammer of the film’s emotional gamut is effective nonetheless. Audiences may be horrified at the callous indecision of the United Nations, but Phoenix’s reporter, who provides much of the exposition, makes clear the delicate nature of the situation and the careless indifference of the First World. The film’s refusal to euphemize the event and George’s wise decision to concentrate on individual characters (rather than the genocide as a whole) brings greater focus and emotional impact. His directing is at worst unobtrusive and at best incendiary, as he guides through the film with an authoritative documentary feel. Only at the most dramatic moments of the film do George’s filmic manipulates become truly apparent. “Hotel Rwanda” is an excellent, if harrowing, film that should be seen, if only to understand what happened in Rwanda in 1994.