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Topical Storm Warning 

No reservations for powerful drama

Given their enviable ability to work up lathers of viewer outrage and empathy, it's virtually impossible not to get sucker-punched by a political thriller with an international backdrop. Capable movies that center on atrocities committed in foreign lands, titles like The Killing Fields, Missing and Under Fire (heck, I even liked the much-maligned Angelina Jolie vehicle Beyond Borders), manage to hook us for the same reasons: They're usually based on actual events and therefore carry a significant measure of added resonance, and they allow audiences to silently express their own moral superiority against those committing the crimes while enabling them to feel as if they've established some sort of bond with the nobly suffering protagonists. It's the cinematic equivalent of armchair quarterbacking: It empowers filmgoers to simultaneously feel as if they're part of the action and yet also above it, nodding knowingly at the screen while tsk-tsking at the genocide raging in front of their eyes.

Hotel Rwanda squarely falls into that camp. Set in 1994 Rwanda, the movie takes place during the 100-day period when nearly one million of that country's Tutsi population was slaughtered by Hutu extremists. Yet the film also takes matters a step further than most works of this nature by boldly suggesting that maybe we, the willing viewers, are in reality more aligned with the oppressors than the oppressed.

Is that too harsh an assessment of the film's intent? Maybe. Yet the scene that keeps coming back to me concerns an exchange between Rwandan hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) and Jack (Joaquin Phoenix), an American cameraman on assignment to film the apocalypse taking place in that African nation. Paul, at this point still under the illusion that the white world cares one whit about anything that might be occurring on the African continent, is convinced that Jack's stirring footage will cause the rest of the world to spring into action and come to the rescue. Jack, buzzed enough so that he can speak with razor-sharp honesty, slaps Paul with the truth: "If people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh, that's horrible,' and then go back to eating their dinners." (I had to stop chewing the tasty morsel in my own mouth at that moment, feeling my cheeks burning with a guilt that may or may not have been warranted.) Colonel Oliver (Nick Nolte), a concerned UN peacekeeper, goes even further than Jack: "We think you're dirt," he spits out at Paul once he learns that the rest of the world won't lift a finger to help. "You're not even a nigger. You're an African."

Clearly, Hotel Rwanda is about international indifference and liberal ineffectualness — "I'm so ashamed!" sobs Jack as he climbs aboard a bus that's been sent to whisk away all the white tourists from what's probably perceived as an urban gangland feud writ large — and the movie shows how all the humanitarian gestures committed by well-meaning individuals (Colonel Oliver; Jack; a Belgian hotel owner played by an unbilled Jean Reno) ultimately count for little when the global policymakers can't be bothered to cast a caring glance. (Note: We can't blame either Bush for this one; this calamity occurred on Bill Clinton's watch, and the former President was so indifferent to the incident that he even fought to downsize US involvement in global peacekeeping efforts.) Yet for all its indignant ire, the movie is more than anything a humanist saga, and it's in this area where Hotel Rwanda draws its greatest power.

The film celebrates the individual actions of Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu who risked everything to save over a thousand Tutsi civilians from falling under the machete. When we first meet him, Paul comes across as a pleasant chap, a man whose job as hotel manager requires him to be everybody's best friend. He's the master of his universe, and his dedication to his job is surpassed only by his devotion to his family, starting with his Tutsi wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo). Initially oblivious to the approaching storm, he soon experiences a rude awakening once the bodies start lining the streets and armed thugs perpetually keep threatening his family and friends. Turning the ritzy hotel into a refugee camp, Paul provides shelter to 1,260 people even as he continues to wheel and deal in an effort to save the lives of everyone who has turned to him for sanctuary.

Hotel Rwanda has already been described by some reviewers as Schindler's List Lite, a term that's not only demeaning but also a tad misleading. Hotel Rwanda is its own creation, a movie that reverberates with such topical force (Sudan, anyone?) that the ink is still drying on its condemnation of a planet that operates with blinders firmly attached. Yet at the center of this maelstrom of moral outrage rests the stabilizing performance of Don Cheadle, who exudes quiet authority as Rusesabagina. When Paul breaks down, he does so in private; in front of his employees, his refugees and his enemies, he remains firmly in control, fully knowing that success squarely rests on his cool head and calm demeanor. Cheadle plays every gesture, every nuance, just right, and it's especially a treat to watch this fine actor take his character's hand and lead him over the stepping stones to his spiritual awakening. Paul Rusesabagina is an upstanding individual from the start, but his belief is that family is the only thing that matters. By the end, he still holds that belief, only now his definition of family has expanded to include anyone who can benefit from the kindness of strangers.

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