to survive: (l-r) Cheadle and Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda.
by Terry George
Paul Rusesabagina saved more than 1,200 lives, and he did
it by staying true to his instincts as a hotelier. Hotel
Rwanda, directed and cowritten by Irish filmmaker Terry
George, tells the true story of Paul’s pragmatic heroism during
the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which
civilians were killed, many of them hacked to death by machete.
Faced with incomprehensible evil, Paul (Don Cheadle) utilizes
the only resources he has: an impeccable sense of civility,
experience in calming the ruffled feathers of important people,
and a reserve of single-malt scotch.
Quickly and vividly establishing the political ferment between
the Hutus, the country’s most populous tribe, and the Tutsis,
who traditionally held most of the power, the film’s harrowing
narrative continues over the hundred days of the slaughter.
Spurred on by blood-curdling radio propaganda, the rebel Hutu
militia embarks on a chaotic killing spree to exterminate
all Tutsis, including women and children.
Paul, a Hutu, is stringently apolitical; his loyalty is to
the Belgium-owned Hotel des Milles Collines. Located in the
capital of Kigali, the luxury hotel is a favored way station
of high-ranking foreigners and nationals alike, including
the corrupt commander of the armed forces, Gen. Bizimungo
(an exceptional Fana Mokoena). Paul first gets a glimpse of
the future while buying liquor from a black marketer; as the
Hutu bootlegger proudly shows him crates of cheap machetes
imported from China. Later, a neighbor is dragged from his
house and beaten to death. Paul tells his Tutsi wife, Tatiana
(Sophie Okonedo), that he is “saving up favors” owed to him
by influential guests in the event that he needs to protect
his family. But Tatiana takes in the entire neighborhood,
and after narrowly escaping from the militia, Paul relocates
all of them to the hotel. Word gets out that the hotel is
a safety zone, and the arrival of refugees and orphans swell
the hotel’s “guest list.”
As the barbarity in Kigali rapidly escalates, a shamefully
small UN peacekeeping force proves completely inadequate.
Again and again, Paul averts mass murder by remaining resourceful
under pressure, and by doling out bribes cadged from the hotel.
Trained in the highest traditions of hospitality, his belief
that reason will prevail gives him courage, no matter how
many times he witnesses the most brutal manifestations of
murderous insanity (admirably enacted by the filmmaker, and
implying more horror than is actually shown). Even so, Paul
is quick to accept the commander’s warnings that help from
the outside will not be forthcoming.
As a dramatization of the genocide, Hotel Rwanda is
a gripping, invaluable movie, despite a nearly maudlin tendency
to play on white guilt (which more appropriately might’ve
been portrayed as world guilt: It wasn’t just the West that
turned its back). There’s a powerful but off-key racial apology
by the U.N. captain (Nick Nolte) to Paul, who brushes it off—he’s
got more crucial things to think about, like convincing the
hotel’s Belgium owners to pull some international strings.
Paul’s calculatedly stoic (and effective) phone call to the
CEO (Jean Reno) is perhaps the subtlest example of Cheadle’s
Brief attention is paid to a reckless Irish journalist (Joaquin
Phoenix, who appears unprepared, as if he showed up just to
lend his star power to a worthy indie project), and not enough
to the African journalist who is introduced as the best reporter
in Rwanda, and who then vanishes instead of bringing some
bearing on the conflict. But if the audience is confused by
the various factions, so too are the protagonists. And one
faction needs no explanation: “the crazy people,” roving bands
of young men crazed by bloodlust.
Okonedo as Paul’s terrified but determined wife holds her
own with Cheadle for heightened realism. Both actors are Oscar
nominated, and without them, the film’s human drama would’ve
been too cursory to be affecting. Tatiana’s conviction that
her neighbors and acquaintances are as indispensable as her
immediate family puts her and her children in even greater
danger. It’s also a moving representation of how the instinct
for self- preservation can blossom, under the unlikeliest
of circumstances, into altruism.
on Precinct 13
Directed by Jean-François Richet
As with many other thrillers, if you thought too much about
any particular plot point in Assault on Precinct 13,
the entire story would collapse in a messy heap of ridiculous
improbabilities. As with any good thriller, however, director
Jean-François Richet’s loose remake of John Carpenter’s no-budget
1976 classic puts the proper emphasis on action and character,
leaving the niceties of logic for higher-minded entertainments.
In a great daisy chain of cinematic theft, Carpenter’s film
was, in turn, a rip-off of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo.
And like Dean Martin’s drunken sheriff in that movie,
the new Assault is built around a used-up cop with
a serious substance-abuse problem.
Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is a wreck. A botched undercover
operation has left him a shell of a man, hooked on pills and
booze and reduced to a nothing desk job in a nowhere Detroit
precinct. Every week he has to meet with Alex (Maria Bello),
a smartass police shrink who’s convinced Jake doesn’t want
to pull himself together. And she’s probably right.
Jake’s going to have pull himself together, however. It’s
New Year’s Eve, and the last night of operation for the decrepit
Precinct 13. This should mean that the only folks left in
the building—Jake, secretary Iris (Drea de Matteo) and fellow
cop Jasper O’Shea (Brian Dennehy)—should have a quiet night.
Except that they will be caught in the middle of a fight to
the death between a gangster, Bishop (Laurence Fishburne,
still doing his cooler-than-cool Morpheus shtick), and a crooked
cop, Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne).
The fun part is, to survive an assault by an army of well-armed
S.W.A.T. police, Jake must join forces with the gangster and
an unpromising assortment of inmates including junkie Beck
(John Leguizamo), con man Smiley (Ja Rule) and teenager Anna
(Aisha Hinds). This crew is a real bunch of characters, and
the film makes the most of the cast’s many talents.
The siege setup has a beautiful simplicity, and director Richet
wrings every bit of tension out of it. With the exception
of the ice-cold Byrne as the main bad guy, the enemy trying
to kill our “heroes” remains chillingly faceless. This is
really smart: It’s easier to sympathize with this motley assortment
of losers when they’re pitted against an implacably evil army
The filmmakers do another smart thing, too: They kill off
characters you wouldn’t expect to be killed, and at surprising
moments, too. This creates an uncertainty for the audience
that is distinctly pleasurable, because one really can’t be
sure where the movie is going.
This makes the final series of confrontations surprisingly
tense. While it’s reasonably certain that Hawke’s hero is
going to rise to the occasion, it isn’t at all certain that
he’ll survive it. When was the last time a Hollywood thriller
pulled that off?