By ANN HORNADAY
The most astonishing thing about "Hotel Rwanda," a magnificent new film about the 1994 genocide, is what it doesn't do: Give the audience a case of the guilts.
Guilt is not altogether inappropriate, even 10 years later. In retrospect, it's mind-boggling that the rest of the world did nothing as 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda in a bizarre case of ethnic strife between Hutu and Tutsi Rwandans that metastasized into genocide over the course of a few months. It's impossible to watch "Hotel Rwanda" without reflecting on the recent outpouring of aid and concern after the tsunami in South Asia and being reminded, yet again, that acts of God are nothing when compared with the acts of man.
But filmmaker Terry George isn't interested in milking Western audiences' knack for retrospective garment-rending. Instead, he has made a film about one man's complicated and finally courageous response to his country's descent into madness.
That man, Paul Rusesabagina, is portrayed with mesmerizing power by Don Cheadle, who provided the glue as a supporting actor in such movies as "Boogie Nights" and the "Ocean's Eleven" remake. Here, he takes center stage that is his due, and he dominates it with a performance that is every bit as complex, varied and messy as the truth that lies behind it.
Rusesabagina was the manager of the Hotel Mille Collines outside Kigali when the fighting broke out in 1994, and he sheltered more than 1,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus at the hotel during the crisis. But, as is made clear in "Hotel Rwanda," Rusesabagina was often a reluctant hero, more concerned with preserving his own job and family than with the plight of his neighbors. The great strength of "Hotel Rwanda" is that it's not about superhuman heroism but simply about human decency.
Surprisingly, George makes the latter every bit as gripping and entertaining as the former. Plunging viewers right into Paul's world as he provides the hotel's powerful guests with Scotch and Cuban cigars while dealing in the favors and inside knowledge that make so much of the world go round, George vividly limns the quiet postcolonial beauty of Paul's Rwanda, even as the forces of discord encroach.
At first, Paul, who is Hutu, thinks the street demonstrations and fiery radio rhetoric will dissipate; he chooses not to leave the country, even though his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is Tutsi.
Inexorably, the reality of the situation sets in and Paul reacts, not with any grand altruistic speeches but simply by putting one foot in front of the other. Paul is a situational hero, a flawed man directed by his own moral compass rather than ideology or ego (as it happens, his moral compass is often his wife).
What starts as an attempt simply to save his family grows into a homegrown refugee project, as Paul agrees to house more and more people at his hotel. When it's clear that the United Nations, the United States and the rest of the West aren't going to save the Rwandan people, the resourceful Paul takes his own tiny corner of the country into his own hands, using a combination of bribery, psychology and his carefully cultivated network of connections to save as many as he can.
Lots of support
George, who co-wrote "Hotel Rwanda" with Keir Pearson, correctly focuses on Paul's extraordinary story, and in doing so never lets Cheadle out of his sight (although the supporting performances are all terrific, including Nick Nolte as a grizzled colonel and Joaquin Phoenix as an American journalist).
But the filmmakers also expertly balance Paul's personal drama with the unimaginable scope and scale of the tragedy that was unfolding around him. "Hotel Rwanda" only rarely departs from the Hotel Mille Collines, but when it does, the camera pulls back to reveal carnage that is stark, sickening and seemingly endless. One of Cheadle's many deeply affecting moments is when Paul returns after witnessing unspeakable horrors while on a supply trip. The epitome of civility even as the world is dissolving around him, he finally breaks down while putting on his tie.
It's of such scenes that "Hotel Rwanda" is composed: small, intimate, wordlessly eloquent. Rather than drag the action down with windy expositions on the history of the conflict and the geopolitical response, George expertly alludes to the long arm of French and Belgian colonialism, the role of the hate-mongering RTML radio station and the shameful equivocation of the Clinton administration in brief references or actual sound clips.
In fact, "Hotel Rwanda" does so much right that it raises a question: Is there something about the United Kingdom that makes its citizens uniquely suited to dramatizing the big political struggles of our era? Consider Roland Joffe and "The Killing Fields," or Michael Winterbottom and "Welcome to Sarajevo." Or the filmmaker who might be the master of the form, Irishman Jim Sheridan, director of "In the Name of the Father" and "The Boxer."
George, who was also born in Ireland, wrote those two films -- both about the Troubles in Belfast -- and went on to make an equally gripping movie on the subject in "Some Mother's Son." With "Hotel Rwanda," George joins the ranks of directors of movies who, for lack of a better term, might be called social humanists. These filmmakers deploy the narrative tension and emotion of mainstream cinema to present otherwise hopeless, real-life scenarios not just with high drama but with hope. It's a noble tradition, exemplifying the beauty, classicism and nuanced sensibility that American film doesn't seem to be capable of.