Cheadle gives overly dramatic ‘Hotel Rwanda’ its credibility
Don Cheadle’s performance in “Hotel Rwanda” is one of the great examples of an actor disappearing into his role. It is not only that I didn’t doubt for a second that Cheadle, the 40-year-old African-American who has made his name in “Boogie Nights,” “Traffic,” and another outstanding current film, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” was the Rwandan hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, but that I didn’t even notice that lack of doubt. It’s truly convincing, and has earned Cheadle an Academy Award nomination for best actor.But slipping unnoticed into the character is only the first step of Cheadle’s performance, and not, I think, the most critical. More significant to the film, set amidst the Rwandan genocide of 1994, is Cheadle’s ability to transform his character’s view so radically, and with the same subtle authority that he gets us to buy that he is African.Cheadle’s Paul Rusesabagina, a real-life character, is, at the film’s opening, the ultimate pragmatist. A polished house manager at the Belgian-owned, four-star Hotel des Milles Collines in the capital city of Kigali, Paul hangs on the every wish of his guests, a group that includes foreign journalists, Rwandan generals and the hire-ups of the U.N. peacekeeping forces. Paul night be considered ingratiating, if not for the fact that he treats his staff with the same respect as the powerful, his back-door dealing to obtain the single-malt Scotch his guests favor, and that his toadying is in the service of the security of his family.
Paul’s approach to politics is to keep it far from his family, his hotel and his own mind. Even as the clashes between Hutus, the ethnic majority, and the rebel Tutsis near the gates of the Milles Collines, Paul brushes it aside, believing that the business-minded persons – like himself – in the U.N. force and the negotiating parties from Belgium, France and the U.S., will surely find a way to broker peace. When the blood-letting begins Paul is only further convinced that stability is on its way. No way, Paul muses, the world can stand by and watch such gruesome slaughter.He is wrong. Paul has allowed his own narrow viewpoint to eclipse the bigger reality. At the Milles Collines, Paul and his staff are treated graciously by the white, foreign clientele. The West, it turns out, was content to sit on the sidelines and watch nearly a million Rwandans die, and many more become refugees.Paul doesn’t invite 1,200 refugees into the sanctuary of the Milles Collines, which, thanks to his contacts, is relatively secure. He is not that kind of take-charge hero. Instead, the world delivers to his door neighbors and orphans, threatened Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus. But Paul does respond heroically, summoning all his skills and contacts to protect what has been put in his care.
Cheadle portrays this transformation gradually, beautifully. Early on, Paul tells his wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo, also up for an Oscar, for supporting actress), that family is all that matters, that he will not sacrifice his family’s well-being for the sake of neighbors. Later on, after the refugees have piled up at the hotel and dodged catastrophe time and again, Paul has turned about-face: given a chance to escape with his family, he stays behind, the only one with a prayer of seeing the flock to safety. But in many ways, it is the same Paul. He hasn’t become Bruce Willis in “Diehard”; he uses the same tactics – flattery, bribery, pleading, subservience – to protect the refugees as he did as a hotel manager.While tackling the most serious subject imaginable, director and co-writer Terry George is open about his intention to entertain. This is both good and bad. On the positive side, “Hotel Rwanda” focuses much attention on the love between Paul and Tatiana. The romance, grippingly portrayed by Cheadle and Okonedo, gives the film a personal angle and an accessibility. On the other hand, “Hotel Rwanda” features one improbably narrow escape after another. Certain points – for instance, the way Paul’s contacts abandon him as soon as his money and supplies run low – are made too quickly, too emphatically. The bad guys are stock characters, and pale next to Paul and Tatiana. Nick Nolte, playing a U.N. colonel, never misses a chance to overact. There is a mostly unambiguous happy ending, which seemed an odd fit to such a tragic, true story.
Which leaves “Hotel Rwanda” as an emotionally captivating film about significant world events, featuring two outstanding lead performances. That it is overly dramatic doesn’t delete it from the must-see category.”Hotel Rwanda” is showing at the Stage 3 Theatres in Aspen. See page B2 for show times and dates. United Artists presents a film directed by Terry George. Running time: 110 minutes. Classified: PG-13 (on appeal for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language).Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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