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Originally published January 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 7, 2005 at 10:21 AM

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Review

"Hotel Rwanda": Hell through the eyes of an angel

Watch Don Cheadle in Terry George's wrenching, fact-based drama "Hotel Rwanda," and see a perfectly controlled actor playing a perfectly controlled man. Paul Rusesabagina was a...

Seattle Times movie critic

Watch Don Cheadle in Terry George's wrenching, fact-based drama "Hotel Rwanda," and see a perfectly controlled actor playing a perfectly controlled man. Paul Rusesabagina was a 40ish hotel manager, working at the four-star Hotel Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994, and in the early scenes of the film we see him going through the paces of his job: schmoozing, soothing, smoothly making sure the guests are happy. He's not a phony but a regular middle-class man who has learned how to play the game — and then, in an instant, the rules changed.

The 100 days of genocide that swept through Rwanda in 1994 seem unthinkable — nearly a million people killed in ethnic purging, streets paved with blood and bodies. And director Terry George ("Some Mother's Son") has a near-impossible task in this film: to convey this horror in a way that we will grasp the impact of it but that we can bear to watch. And so much of the violence in "Hotel Rwanda" takes place out of our sight — but we see it in the dazed, unbelieving eyes of Cheadle, of Sophie Okonedo as Rusesabagina's wife, Tatiana, and the other actors, who skillfully guide us through hell and back.

Movie review


Showtimes and trailer

***½
"Hotel Rwanda," with Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, David O'Hara, Cara Seymour. Directed by Terry George, from a screenplay by George and Keir Pearson. 121 minutes. Rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language. Uptown, Metro.

Rusesabagina's story is one that sounds too astonishing to be true, but it happened: As refugees, fleeing murderous extremists, sought shelter at the Hotel Mille Collines, a regular man became a hero. Abandoned by the United Nations (Nick Nolte, as a U.N. officer in Kigali, reminds Rusesabagina, "We're peacekeepers, not peacemakers"), by the wealthy European guests and by the higher-up managers, Rusesabagina opened the hotel doors to more than 1,200 people. He bargained with soldiers, carefully portioned dwindling supplies of water (from the hotel pool) and food — and kept every one of his "guests" alive.

The hotel, with its newly ironic "Do Not Disturb" signs on guestroom doors, becomes an oasis of calm in the madness. Outside, families disappear, including Rusesabagina's nieces, for whom he and Tatiana desperately search at a Red Cross camp. The road to the camp is shrouded in mist and scattered with corpses, including many children.

Through all of this, Cheadle and Okonedo create a believable portrait of a couple in love, determined to survive with their children (even though, in a devastating scene, they must make a contingency plan of suicide). Occasionally he even laughs; the kind of laugh calculated to make sure you don't cry. She is often quiet, seeming chilled with fear, but her strength is unbreakable. Okonedo, a British stage actor recently seen in the film "Dirty Pretty Things," seems to carefully ration every breath; the tightness of her face speaks volumes.

It's not easy to watch "Hotel Rwanda," but it has a genuine power: the ability of film to beam light onto dark days of history, making it impossible for us to look away, reminding us of what we should never forget. By the end, Cheadle looks thinner and older — he's not, but a good actor can make us believe anything, even as hellish a truth as this.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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