The keenest line in Hotel Rwanda comes from Joaquin Phoenix's jaded photo-journalist. After canning some stomach-churning footage of Hutu extremists hacking a group of Tutsi women to death with machetes, he shrugs: ""People will say, `Oh, how horrible!' - - and then go on eating their dinners.""
The tragedy of Rwanda is that that's pretty much what happened. In 1994, a 100-day flurry of pitiless savagery saw around one million Tutsis murdered, while the UN teetered in an ivory tower of bloody-minded neutrality. It's a modern-day holocaust with a bitter, complex history, but while Hotel Rwanda has a quiet, brooding power, it also feels a little sanitised.
Still, director/co-writer Terry George (Some Mother's Son) could have gone for a depersonalising, Saving Private Ryan-like approach of withering, pornographic violence. Instead, he humanises the horrors with fleeting dashes of detail: an uncinematic fleck of blood from the mouth of a beaten man; the demonic propaganda of the Hutu extremist radio station; a heavy machete blade scraping across concrete...
Trouble is, although George is clearly impressed with his main character's similarity to Oskar Schindler, this isn't `Rusesabagina's List'. There's too much swelling, spell-breaking music and clumsy slo-mo. It's a dull-witted viewer who needs their hand so frequently held to emphasise the living nightmare of children being forced to hide for their lives. The clunkiness extends to supporting characters. Phoenix is adequately frazzled as the hack with a big, badger-hiding beard, but Jean Reno is just... Jean Reno. Ditto UN general Nick Nolte, who's only there to look a bit leathery and briefly explain the politics.
But Don Cheadle is outstanding, deserving his Oscar nom for a steely, soulful performance brimming with brains and dignity. He bribes, he connives, he gently chides... Most importantly, he provides the solid centre for a film that sometimes feels sadly flimsy.
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Don Cheadle is the anchor for a potent but overplayed drama. Could have used a little Salvador-style rough to go with the smooth.