Somewhere around the half-million-dead mark of the 1994 genocide depicted in Hotel Rwanda, a U.N. peacekeeper (Nick Nolte) explains the bottom line to hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle):
"The superpowers … they think you're dirt … dung. You're not even a nigger. You're African."
You couldn't ask for a more concise summation of the inhumanity of U.S. realpolitik. It's part of an emotionally grueling film, but unfortunately, director Terry George seems skittish about going too deeply or bloodily into the damning details of this particular heart of darkness.
For years, Rwanda suffered under Belgian colonial rule. Warring tribes were forced to share the same land, beginning a decades-long cycle of antagonism. At the time of the events in Hotel Rwanda, the Hutus, currently in power, were trying to exterminate the Tutsi minority. Nearly one million would die.
George's film is a tale of long-term imperialism blowback seen from Rusesabagina's viewpoint of (ultimately) bogus privilege. A smooth operator running a four-star hotel in the capital city of Kigali, Rusesabagina bribed aggressors from both sides with cash, single malts and favors at first because he thought the conflagration would blow over, and when it didn't, to save the lives of his family. A multinational military elite was sent to evacuate the hotel's rich white folks, while the U.N. forces proved useless without superpower (i.e., American) support as the genocidal energies hit critical mass. Soon Rusesabagina was packing the hotel with children and refugees, eventually saving the lives of 1,268 people.
Cheadle is quietly terrific as a guy whose heroism is a logical outgrowth of his basic, no-big-deal sort of decency. The actor gets major support from Sophie Okonedo (Dirty Pretty Things), as Rusesabagina's wife Tatiana, whose heroism is defined by her ability to continue experiencing a full range of emotions under the most heinous of conditions.
But Cheadle needs something from the other side of the lens to make convincing the slow crumbling of Rusesabagina's impossible dream: assimilating into a Western culture that has no problem forgetting his existence. Filmmaker George finds a metaphor for this central problem in a passage that has Rusesabagina stumbling upon a corpse-strewn killing field, whereupon he frantically tries to rip his smart European suit off his body. But the camera just sits there, visually stranding Cheadle. George's unembroidered directing style often effectively deadpan is too dry for the sad poetry of such a moment.
In randomly inserted segments, a Clinton wonk redefines "genocide" to avoid addressing U.S. inaction and Rusesabagina bemoans the loss of his own cultural memory. These themed nuggets are lost amid (and upstaged by) the more visceral images of chaos and peril.
Still, only a charter member of the dead-soul set could remain unmoved during the film's devastating finale. There's Schindler's List-like inspirational value in Rusesabagina's story, but it's dwarfed by that near-million dead. The film's cumulative tone, to George's final credit, is more of aching elegy than sugarcoated triumph.