Tuesday, January 25, 2005

REVIEW: Hotel Rwanda

Yay! First review! First review!

Ahem.

So, by now we've probably all heard about "Hotel Rwanda." You've heard it's a big, outside-the-studio-ish fact based drama about a recent tragedy you're probably not familiar with. You've heard that it's going to make you feel really, really down about not being familiar with it beforehand (the word "sobering" has probably been used.) You've heard it's good, you've probably even heard that it's great. You've heard that Don Cheadle, as expected, shines in his dramatic lead performance. You've may have even heard the appolation making the rounds that it is "the black 'Schindler's List,'" a turn of phrase that, while innacurate, does more-or-less prepare for you the broad outline of what your getting.

So, I heard all the same things you have. And I saw it today. So, then, I can report back that most of what you've heard is true, though as is often to case with these things, it's best to go in expecting it to be simply "good" given how widely opinions can vary on "excellent."

The film takes place during the Rwandan genocide of the late 1990s, when a breakdown in peace talks between the country's Hutu majority and Tutsi minority led to a full-scale massacre of Tutsi's by the Hutu military and roving machete-wiedling street gangs. Cheadle stars as a real life figure, the House Manager of a resort hotel who found himself concealing some 1000+ refugees from the violence inside the hotel when the United Nations (and all other foriegn nationals) fled the country.

The film has two main modes of operation: firstly, to make Westerners feel bad about not paying much attention to this when it was going on. The film is in English, it's leading roles are cast largely with American and European talent, and it holds itself rigidly to the established structure of True Life Tragic Stories made in the U.S. (usually for TV or cable.) Make no mistake, the primary target of this film is Western (read: American) folks who heard about this on the news, as opposed to Rwandans or other Africans who may have lived through it.

On the one hand, this is probably the best way to present the material to achieve the overarching goal of drawing overdue attention to an overlooked tragedy: This is the template by which mainstream America is used to recieving it's bad news recap, so the artful dodge here is to tell them a story that is "alien" to them in the most familiar way possible.

On the other hand, is does reduce the impact of some potentially powerful scenes because anyone remotely familiar with the "beats" of the genre will see them coming. It's innevitable, for example, that the film's early attention to Cheadle's pride in putting on his suits and ties for work is a setup for a later scene where tearing them off is used to visualize his primal breaking point (complete with popping buttons, no less.) Whenever Joaquin Pheonix's BBC (?) reporter character asks a question, it's understood that he's doing so for the benefit of the audience and that the slightly-preachy answer will be followed by a "think about it, won't you?" pause. When a pair of lead characters find themselves alone and surrounded by fog, you just kind of know that the camera will pull back and reveal something of corner-turning hideousness.

The film's impact is also slightly undercut with a PG-13 rating which, as you might imagine, renders the film's central image of mass-villiany, the Hutu machete death-squads, as a bit less frightening than you may be expecting them to be. The film is, of course, not about gratuitous violence, but there are moments where the film seems to be willfully holding back, and it plays as a mistake.

The film is much MORE successful at it's second mode of operation: "Don Cheadel is The Man." Chealde is a powerful force as an actor with a seemingly inexhaustable range, and here he takes one of modern cinema's more worn archetypes ("the practical man who doesn't want to get involved until he does") and turns it into one of the best characters of the year. The film is fine, well made and written, but it's Cheadle who grabs "Hotel Rwanda" by the scruff of it's neck and pulls it up from the level of an above-average USA Network "true story" to a real film of power and depth. The film is great because he makes it's great, and otherwise it's merely "good."

"THE great film" about the Rwandan genocide is probably yet to be made. This isn't it, and really, it's not trying to be. This is a story about a remarkable person, embodied in a remarkable performance by an actor finally getting his proper due. See it because the story is important, yes, but also see it because Cheadle is only going to become a bigger star, and you owe it to yourself to get familiar with him.

FINAL RATING: 7/10