Oscar season inevitably brings us films of varied greatness. We have the epic, larger than life films such as "The Aviator" and the smaller, intelligent biopic films such as "Kinsey" or "Finding Neverland." We have the gritty human dramas such as "Million Dollar Baby" and even "Closer." Then, we have smaller independent films with much critical acclaim clinging to a faint hope for nomination such as "Garden State." Then, there are the "must-see" films...the films that bring such a vital message, such vital performances and such vital humanity to the screen that any true fan of cinema will find themselves kneeling on the floor and thanking the Gods that this film has been made.
"Hotel Rwanda" is such a film. Based upon the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, "Hotel Rwanda" is a "must see" film that will leave many of you as it left me...shaking, tearful and staring at the screen...angry at a world that can be so immersed in separation and hatred that not only can such horrific violence exist as did during the Rwandan crisis of the early 90s, but this separation and hatred and racism can be so powerful that the rest of the world can stand by and do nothing...literally nothing as nearly one million humans were massacred in one of the most powerful examples of ethnic cleansing this planet has seen. Yet, it will also leave you in awe of the courage of this man, Paul Rusesabagina, in protecting over 1,200 individuals during this time as he struggled to balance professional responsibilities, family duties and an inner call to a people in need.
This film could easily beg for comparison to a film such as "Schindler's List", however, as wondrous as "Schindler's List" is this film offers, for me, a more complete and satisfying look at universal tragedy and the small pieces of humanity within it.
Director Terry George would have likely failed miserably had he chosen to make a film based upon the Rwandan genocide of nearly 1,000,000 Tutsi's. The sheer scope and intensity of the tragedy would have made for a nearly impossible screenplay that would have, inevitably, dwelled upon immense violence and tragedy and hatred. Instead of attempting to encompass the entire scope of the Rwandan experience, George's film wisely focuses on one hero within the tragedy...one man who stood up to it and made different choices for the good of all.
Rusesabagina is played with understated power,focus and stunning clarity by Don Cheadle in what is, without a doubt, the performance of his lifetime. Throughout the award season I have been a loud and active advocate for Paul Giamatti's performance in Sideways", however, let me state this without hesitation and without any doubt. Don Cheadle absolutely, 100% deserves the Oscar for Best Actor. Having seen nearly 80 films during 2004, I have not seen a performance come close to this intensity and tenderness and complexity and power. Cheadle, quite simply, nails every aspect of this character in a performance that leaves me shaking my head thinking to myself "How did he do that?" Giamatti's performance was magnificent, but Cheadle's performance leaves me speechless.
As his wife, Sophie Okonedo, begs to be considered as a Best Supporting Actress. Knowing that her husband, a Hutu, is safe from the genocide, Okonedo's performance as Tatiana, a Tutsi, is nothing short of wondrous. As mother and wife and sister and friend, Okonedo's Tatiana is a woman of fierce determination, uncommon loyalty and remarkable strength.
Along with these leading performances, Terry George offers us tremendous production design, excellent pacing, awesome cinematography and a remarkable score. Once again, it is important that this film never resorts to trying to "sell the drama" through intense violence or special effects...George trusts this material implicitly and wisely uses smoke and fog and distance shots quite often in creating scenes that are violent without becoming histrionic and overwhelming.
Likewise, George offers brilliant timing in giving the audience moments of levity...human moments of tenderness between Paul and Tatiana...human moments between Paul and the various military players...small, intimate moments between family members that remind us so deeply and powerfully of the humanity within this immense tragedy. These little moments are interspersed throughout the film and are timed perfectly. The film is constantly moving and emotional and life-changing but never feels completely overwhelming to the point of alienating the audience.
George, who also co-wrotes this script, has written such films as "The Boxer" and "In the Name of the Father." George reportedly envisioned Cheadle for this role from day one, despite investor's desires for the likes of Denzel, Snipes or even Mekhi Phifer. I cringe at the thought of either of these three actors in this role...perhaps there is an argument that it would have made more money, but Cheadle clearly owns this role and creates a film that demands attention. Denzel, perhaps, would have given a solid performance here BUT Cheadle is simply masterful beyond anything Washington could have offered.
The film narrowly misses perfection because of a couple minor flaws, and I unfortunately must blame George for both of these decisions. First, as UN Peacekeeper Col. Oliver, Nick Nolte is woefully miscast and basically offers a phone-in performance that pales in comparison to Cheadle. When he shares the screen with Cheadle, Nolte is clearly outshined and offering a surface performance in what is, gratefully, a fairly brief performance. On the other hand, while his onscreen time is brief, Joaquin Phoenix again shows a tremendous ability to take a small role and turn it into brilliance...here offering a reporter who is trying to show the truth even though nobody is really paying attention. The film also offers an appearance by Jean Reno in an uncredited performance.
My other small concern here is with the underdeveloped roles of Nolte and Phoenix...these characters were, without a doubt, essential to the dramatic cornerstone of this story yet I never felt anything when they were onscreen. This was particularly bothersome for Nolte, however, there's a goodbye scene for Phoenix's character that feels a touch out of place...I hadn't seen anything truly develop for this character so to have this sudden, intense goodbye seemed a surprise. It still worked, but even a couple more minutes of exposition would have helped tremendously.
These are, however, minor quibbles for a film that will instantly enter my Top 100. "Hotel Rwanda" is a film that I consider a must-see this award season...it is a film that cries out for recognition and honor and, yes, box office rewards. It is a film that makes me want to run up to Terry George and scream "thank you...thank you...thank you" for having the courage, energy and focus to bring this story to life and for having the guts to seek independent financing so you could cast YOUR choice of Don Cheadle.
"Garden State" remains my favorite film of 2004, however, "Hotel Rwanda" has become my pick as the winner of the Oscar for "Best Picture." "Hotel Rwanda" will not only change your life...it will make you grateful for it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic