The previous 12 months featured many more great characters than they did Great Performances. Whether it was Imelda Staunton’s staunch work in Vera Drake or Virginia Madsen’s stirring supporting role in Sideways, we got a bunch of fine work by actors who skipped histrionics for cool, straight roles that tested their believability rather than their octave range. Even Leonardo DiCaprio’s interpretation of Howard Hughes in The Aviator and Jamie Foxx’s channeling of Ray Charles in Ray owed more to the historical record than any actorly invention, which made their impersonations all the more impressive.
Don Cheadle gives another such performance in Hotel Rwanda, a preachy little thriller set during the unspeakable genocide in the title country during the 1990s. As hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, the career character actor shows off the full range of his talents with a weighted, nuanced performance focused on the whirring mind behind a placid exterior. Cheadle has always seemed to be an actor of greater gifts than the ones he has shown while goofing his way through a P.T. Anderson picture or putting on that scattershot Cockney accent for Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve. In this meaty role, he resists the temptation to show off amid the chaos; he keeps himself as levelheaded as the character he’s playing, and the result is the biggest thrill in a fine film that probably could have used a bit more garishness.
Cheadle and director Terry George have exactly the same idea about this material. It must have been terribly tempting to flood the screen with emotional theatrics, given the story of this massacre. It’s set in 1994, when Rusesabagina was the manager of the Hotel des Mille Colines—a stylish spot owned by Belgians and frequented by the European elite during its unpleasant but unavoidable trips to Kigali. Every wheel must be greased, every payoff delivered to keep the hotel in top working order, and Rusesabagina is a master operator, getting everything done with a smile.
And then the dominant Hutu tribe began to massacre the Tutsi minority, using machetes and guns to kill nearly 1,000,000 people in just a few weeks. If you’ve never read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, or seen news accounts of the genocide, you can hardly comprehend a slaughter with no real equal in the past half-century. As a Hutu, Rusesabagina was in little personal danger at the start—but his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is a Tutsi. With a simple decency that turned out to be incredibly heroic, he turns his luxury hotel into an oasis of protection for as many fugitives as possible. The resulting tension permeates every remaining scene in Hotel Rwanda as Rusesabagina struggles to protect his family while also remaining resourceful and smooth, even when he’s too scared to tie his tie properly.
But we would appreciate his fear more if we were allowed to see more of the carnage. We’re never given a definitive view of what really happened in Rwanda, with George narrowing the story to Rusesabagina’s experiences inside the relatively safe confines of his luxury hotel. Nearly everything else is suggestion and aftermath, told largely in stories from the traumatized masses who beg for salvation. Even the film’s washed-out visual look is distancing. Except for an unnerving scene in which Rusesabagina and his driver realize they’ve been making their way down a road strewn with corpses, we don’t even begin to grasp the extent of the terror.
Perhaps George simply felt as overwhelmed as the United Nations colonel played by Nick Nolte, whose troops are powerless to stop the roaming Hutu warlords. The international community’s inability to even attempt to stop the genocide infuriates George, and his righteous indignation drives the strong linear story of Hotel Rwanda. But while Rusesabagina saved lives by doing his job exceptionally well, George’s determination to remain civil prevents a very good movie from being great.
HOTEL RWANDA *** Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte Rated PG-13