Hotel Rwanda: Terry George’s Inspirational Movie of Paul Rusesabagina, Played by Don Cheadle

In intent, but not in execution, Hotel Rwanda is a cross between Schindler’s List, about the German industrialist who saved 1100 Jews during the Holocaust, and The Killing Fields, about Cambodia’s takeover by the Khmer Rouge.

Terry George’s inspirational movie tells the moving story of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), a hotel manager in Rwanda, who secretly used his position and intelligence to shelter 1208 refugees during the 1994 genocide.

Ten years ago, when Rwanda descended into madness, Paul made a promise to protect his family–and ended up saving over a thousand people. While the rest of the world closed its eyes, Paul proved that the human spirit could make people stronger and nobler than ever imagined. Cheering for an African hero who risk is life to save others is a good cause. George’s saga makes for a good screen story, one that combines a riveting political thriller with a deeply moving portrait of one marriage and family, resulting in a universal story of the triumph of one good man over evil.

Rwanda has a long, complex, unrecorded history. For centuries, the area was a loose conglomeration of two ethnic groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. General Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, staged a military coup in 1973. Banning all political activity, he ruled the country as a dictator. A group made up of Tutsi exiles formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded Rwanda from Uganda, leading to a civil war. Peace talks were solidified in the Arusha Accords, which promised democratic reforms. However, on the way back from signing the Accords, April 6, 1994, Habyarimana and the President of Burundi were assassinated by members of their parties, who subsequently blamed the Tutsis for their deaths. That night, a pre-planned execution of high-ranking Tutsi officials and Hutu moderates began.

Over the next three days, high-ranking Tutsis and moderate Hutus in power were executed. The violence didn’t stop there. Bands of an organized Hutu militia known as the Interahamwe roamed the country. The killing spread all over Rwanda. The Red Cross estimated that hundreds of thousands were murdered, after the U.N. reduced its peacekeeping force from 2,500 to 270 soldiers.

In July 1994, the RPF invaded again from Uganda, this time prevailing and bringing an end to the genocide. During the genocide, one million people were killed, and more than three million fled to other countries, which created the world’s worst refugee crisis. The West finally responded, launching a large aid effort, which concluded in March of 1996.

The Rwandan genocide is one of the bloodiest chapters in history. While Hutu extremists slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors and any moderate Hutus who stood in their way, no one came to help Rwanda. There was no international intervention, no expeditionary forces, no coalition of the willing, and no international aid.

The mass disaster was made all the more tragic by the fact that the world chose to ignore it. While occasional reports about Rwanda’s “tribal warfare” were carried by international news agencies, the horror did not cause international outrage. Instead, it was written off as another third world incident, unworthy of the world’s attention. Unfortunately, most people were unaware of the situation’s gravity. The film suggests that the genocide could have been avoided had the world–and the U.S.–been more caring and actively involved.

Wars have always provided fertile ground for the emergence of heroic acts by ordinary people. In Rwanda, amidst the horrendous violence and chaos, that hero was Paul Rusesabagina, an ordinary man who out of love and compassion saved numerous lives. He’s presented as a normal man who, when prompted by his wife, was able to use his position to help others.

One of the film’s interesting points is how the extremist Hutu government used their radio station RTML to spew forth hate and venom towards the Tutsi, and how prejudice and fear drove ordinary people to believe that they had to massacre their neighbors to preserve their own existence. The radio station serves a character in the film, showing the power of mass media propaganda.

When first met, Tatiana and Paul represent a perfect couple living an ideal life. A former nurse, Tatiana is now a full-time mother. Paul has a well-respected career as a hotel manager and functions as a pillar of the community; when people want advice they come to him. As the events unfold, Tatiana and Paul desperately fight to hold their family together through the growing horrors.

The story of Paul’s resilience in the face of all obstacles is told with care and attention. Paul kept his head and his wits, orchestrating the tricky survival of the refugees. It’s an amazing journey: Paul starts off as a family-oriented man who gradually turns into a community-oriented citizen, as concerned about the hotel’s employees as he is about his immediate family.

The acting is uniformly good. Don Cheadle, always a solid, thoughtful actor, gives a heartfelt performance, and so does Sophie Okonedo as his wife; on screen, they share the kind of chemistry expected of spouses.

Nick Nolte plays Colonel Oliver, a composite character of Canadian officers who led the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. Quickly realizing the U.N. unsympathetic bureaucrats tie his hands, he interacts with Paul as a communicator, trying to get the word out about the country’s genocide.

To give the audience an intimate, insider’s view, Hotel Rwanda is not structured as a documentary but as an emotional distillation of Paul’s life, the particular events that formulated his triumph, his ability to succeed in the face of overwhelming odds. The story is uniquely focused on one building (the hotel), the people within it, and their tangled relationships. When the film ventures outside of the hotel, its imagery is bizarre, almost surreal, but the impact of the outdoor scenes is less convincing.

The problem is that by centering on one man, the filmmakers avoid focusing on the horror of the genocide at large. This has always been the case of using the classic Hollywood style, which rests on the individuality of social issues. Indeed, political and military problems that appear general at the outset are resolved at the level of the social character, one heroic individual, but in a way that appears to imply a more general resolution.

Terry George seems fearful to get too close to the slaughter. Hotel Rwanda should have been a horror story, not a middlebrow, uplifting human drama. In concession to the mass audience, George humanizes too much the conflict, reducing it to a familiar psychological level, easily digestible by viewers.

There’s too much concern with telling the story in a compelling, cohesive way. The narrative is too neatly structured, in terms of the characters’ arcs of the story’s progression. And the uplifting message–the hope and perseverance in the face of unimaginable odds–may be too simplistic and blatant for this kind of tragedy.