*Disclaimer: This review has some specifics about certain scenes in the movie, so if you don't want to know anything about it before seeing, then don't read this.
There are a lot of movies about war, about stuff blowing up and soldiers dying to save one another amidst a hail of evil gunfire from the evil enemy. Some impart the hellish nature of war with realism and emotional performances (Saving Private Ryan), while others are simply vehicles for half-assed love stories and boring acting (Pearl Harbor). Hollywood has a duty to the American soldier, it seems, that is just as binding as that soldier's commitment to his country.
This is exactly why Hotel Rwanda is an important film for all Americans to see. Hazy memories of Rwandan refugees marching across CNN screens during the mass murder and genocide campaign, leaving almost 1 million estimated dead, that occurred there in the mid-90's will be brought back from the depths of your memories and permanently etched into your consciousness. American war movies focus on the hero, the brotherhood, and the love story, but Hotel Rwanda is simply about people, people who love each other and hate each other, who betray and sacrifice, and who commit ultimate acts of atrocity. Above all it is about one man's struggle with himself and the world at suddenly at odds against him.
Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is a well-off house manager of a four star hotel who keeps rich foreigners and important government officials happy in his 'oasis in the desert.' He, like many of his friends and neighbors, knows about the tensions between the Tutsis and Hutus, two artificial racial groups created by the Belgians when Rwanda was under that country's rule. The Tutsis, a minority group singled out by the Belgians for their lighter skin and thinner noses, originally were chosen as the ruling class in Rwanda, and a system of racial identity cards was put in place. Now, years after decolonization, militant Hutu groups label the descendents of this class (often known not just by appearance but only by name) 'cockroaches.' When the Prime Minister is murdered after a supposed peace agreement between the government and the Tutsi rebel group, the Hutu militia begins the extermination. Violence erupts without warning, and Paul's hotel becomes a true oasis in the middle of the terrible and bloody conflict.
Cheadle deserves an Oscar (he is nominated for Best Actor) for his performance as the complicated and conflicted Paul; his interaction with Europeans and officials has falsely led him to believe himself one of them, and the betrayal when the West turns a blind eye, evacuating all Europeans and Americans but leaving his city with a measly four man UN force, leaves him bitterly determined to keep his Tutsi wife and family and the refugees at his hotel from violent death under a machete. In one scene, Paul comes across a road lined with the bodies of murdered Tutsis - women, children, and men. The bodies stretch as far as the eye can see. Cheadle's portrayal of the dignified man's breakdown (it comes later as he is in the bathroom trying to tie his tie, the last remnant of the world he knew) is intensely heartbreaking. Nick Nolte as the hands-tied UN officer is effective and supporter Sophie Okonedo is masterful as Paul's wife. There is no pretense of heroism for Paul or any of the other characters, because in this war, surviving is winning.
The film as a whole is carefully constructed, and it shows. There are moments of lightness, little girls dancing together and singing, Paul and his wife having a candlelit drink on the rooftop, and these are necessary. The audience needs to laugh to break the mood just as much as the characters do, even if the underlying sorrow and impending violence remains prevalent. The scene in which the white foreigners are put on a bus to leave the country is masterful and profoundly moving - a close up pan of white faces staring out the window as they prepare to leave the Rwandans to their death cuts like a knife, especially when it ends on a man raising up a disposable camera to take a picture.
This perhaps is the most important image in the film, for while it is a movie about one man's courage and commitment to human life and dignity, it is also a brave testament to the way the West views Africa: as poor, troubled people on our TV screens during a CNN broadcast. Paul tells his guests, after the UN has left, to call anyone they know on the outside and 'shame them into helping us.' Anyone who can simply 'go back to eating their dinner' after seeing this, as one cameraman suggests will be the American reaction, should be ashamed. It is more likely you will feel something else, perhaps regret, sorrow, anger, sickness, and also hope for the human spirit that allowed at least some of those targeted to escape the slaughter. This movie is one of the best reminders the film world has produced that shows us human rights belong to all humans, even those who seem worlds away.