He is one of the most venerable supporting actors of our day. His name is known and admired by most who know their movies. And finally, his time has come to show the world what he's all about. Don Cheadle delivers a star-turning performance in "Hotel Rwanda," a movie that looks at the true story of one man who was stuck in the middle of the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
According to the movie, Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle) was a loving husband and father who was the house manager of a successful international hotel in the struggling country. He was well-liked, respected and successful - but it wasn't to last. In a single instant, Rwanda was turned upside down. The President was assassinated and the Hutu militia took to the streets to destroy all of the Tutsis minority. Rusesabagina, a Hutu married to a Tutsis (Sophie Okonedo), immediately set out to save his family but ended up using his hotel as a sanctuary for Tutsis refugees. As the war waged outside the hotel walls, he tried to use his influence to maintain the protection of the U.N. and the West, all of whom seemed to have turned their backs on his country.
The story is amazing, and not unlike one of the most amazing films of our time, "Schindler's List." The story is sad yet surprisingly uplifting, as it is about survival in the midst of horror. Perhaps more important is that unlike the Holocaust, many people are unaware or oblivious to the extent of the Rwandan genocide. As Joaquin Phoenix says in the movie, "People see it on the news, say 'That's horrible' and then go on eating their dinners." More truths are channeled through Nick Nolte's character: to the West, Africans are dirt. It's not something easy to admit, and it's not an intentional thought, but much of Africa is destroying itself and we do nothing about it.
Anyway, getting back to point, the story is powerful and moving, as is the movie overall. The actual movie itself is not as visually powerful or artistic as "Schindler's List," but then again, it is clear director Terry George never intended it to be. While beautifully shot, the movie is pretty basic and matter-of-fact in its presentation, a fact that makes it neither better nor worse, only different. George lets the characters and the setting tell the story, not his artistry, and the effect is pretty stunning. Cheadle is mesmerizing, delivering his finest performance to date. There are no flaws in his delivery. The setting, of course, tells its own tale. George provides a good balance of horror, as he shows the effects of genocide at the time but never goes over-the-top and tries to slam the audience with too many shocking images. The contrast between the genocide happening in the country and the isolated little world in the hotel is interesting, to say the least.
I wasn't overly impressed with the supporting cast, however. Okonedo does a pretty good job, but Nolte and Phoenix are only average. Neither man gets a lot to work with, but Nolte in particular didn't seem to fit the role the way I wanted him to. Oh well.
Sadly, whereas both the movie and its star are great, neither will win the big awards in the coming months. "Hotel Rwanda" is one of the best movies of 2004 and Cheadle is one of the best actors of 2004, but neither are THE best of the year. It's been a competitive year and "Hotel Rwanda" can't claim the top prize.
Nevertheless, award recognition aside, "Hotel Rwanda" is one of the most powerful, depressing and yet uplifting movies of the year. It tells a true story in a way we can believe, never capitalizing on the emotional effect of hundreds of thousands of murdered bodies but still reminding us of the atrocities that happened there. More than anything else, Cheadle finally gets to show the world why he is so popular among so many people - he is one of the best actors working today.
Now out on DVD, those of you who missed "Hotel Rwanda" in theaters (and I know there were a lot of you) can see what this movie is all about. Sadly, this movie got passed up for a Best Picture nomination by "Ray" (I still don't understand how that happened), but that's in the past. The DVD contains several very nice special features, especially for a drama, including two commentary tracks and two documentaries. The feature-length commentary is primarily by director Terry George and the real Paul Rusesabagina, who provides insight into what really happened compared to what happens in the movie. Don Cheadle also provides limited scene commentary on a separate audio track - why he couldn't do the entire movie is beyond me.
The two documentaries are also quite interesting, as one follows the real Rusesabagina as he returns to Rwanda for the first time in several years, reunites with friends at the hotel and visits one of the several genocide museums, where mummified victims are there for anyone to witness firsthand. One room includes several small children with their heads smashed in. The documentary is of poor production value, but just seeing and listening to the real man behind the story is worth it. The other documentary is focused on the making of the film, but it too provides a lot more insight than the typical promotional piece. The real Rusesabagina also is interviewed here, as well as the main players involved in the production. If you haven't seen "Hotel Rwanda," you should head out to the video store right now and pick up this DVD. If you're a fan of the movie, this one may be worth buying.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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