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Review: 'Hotel Rwanda' amazing, gripping

Standout acting performances in important film

By Paul Clinton

Hotel Rwanda
Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo in "Hotel Rwanda."
Don Cheadle

(CNN) -- During 100 terrifying days in 1994, nearly 1 million people died in a horrific genocide in the African country of Rwanda, as the ruling members of the Hutu tribe began a calculated effort to wipe out the Tutsi minority.

This unholy act of inhumanity was compounded by the fact that the world stood silently by and did nothing to intervene.

The film "Hotel Rwanda" is based on an actual event that occurred during that terrible time, the attempt of one man -- a hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina -- to save as many people as possible. The film is not only one of the best movies of the year; it is also probably the most important movie of the year.

Rusesabagina, played magnificently by Don Cheadle, managed to save the lives of 1,268 people as he risked everything in an uncommon act of courage. (The hotelier, who's still alive, served as a consultant to the movie.)

He was the manager of the Hotel Mille Collines, a Belgian-owned resort in Kigali, Rwanda. Adept at servicing the needs and egos of the rich and powerful, both European and Rwandan, he was at first reluctant to realize the enormity of the situation.

Early in the film, as the mindless massacres are just beginning, Rusesabagina meets a cynical Western journalist, Jack, played with quiet intensity by Joaquin Phoenix. Jack has captured video footage showing the rampant savagery taking place across the country. Rusesabagina is elated -- sure that this footage will bring help and intervention from around the world.

Jack knows better.

"If people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's terrible,' and they'll go on eating their dinners," he tells Rusesabagina.

Terror and fear

As the vicious violence accelerates and the Europeans flee the country, Rusesabagina, who is a Hutu, takes his Tutsi wife Tatiana (played by Sophie Okonedo of "Dirty Pretty Things") and their children to the relative safety of the hotel. Soon, relatives and neighbors join their ranks.

Every day the number of desperate people seeking shelter increases -- at one point a busload of orphans shows up -- and Rusesabagina finds himself in the role of protector and leader to these terrified and suddenly homeless masses. His tenuous connection with a Hutu general -- forged during his days as the manager of the luxury hotel -- is the only thing keeping them all alive.

Cheadle gives the best performance of his career, says reviewer Paul Clinton.

Giving an exceedingly strong performance, Nick Nolte appears as Colonel Oliver, a United Nations soldier, who is under strict orders not to interfere with the slaughter of innocent lives by the extremist Hutu population. In one powerful scene Nolte's character, in an explosion of frustration, blames racism for the indifference displayed by the Western powers.

These are sentiments that have been explored before by writer-director Terry George. He received both BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for his screenplay, "In The Name of the Father," and made his directorial debut with "Some Mother's Son." Both films dealt with the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland.

George never actually shows any graphic violence. There are no tight shots of blood running in the streets. This restraint allowed him to a get a PG-13 rating, but in no way diminishes the heart-stopping terror -- and the deep sense of hopelessness -- felt by victims of the genocide.

The power of courage

Okonedo gives an award-worthy turn as Rusesabagina's wife, who fluctuates between searing anger, abject terror and intense bravery.

And Cheadle? He gives the best performance of his career, which is saying something given his performances in "Devil with a Blue Dress," "Out of Sight," "Boogie Nights" and "Traffic."

"Hotel Rwanda" is already critically acclaimed and is sure to garner some awards this season. But the test commercially will be whether audiences -- perhaps numbed by watching seemingly endless Iraq war footage -- will be persuaded to put down money to watch what is a deeply troubling film. Or will they simply turn their backs -- just like the world community did back in 1994 when these events actually occurred?

I hope not, because though "Hotel Rwanda" has a grim backdrop, it's also a stunning testimony to the power of just one individual. The film defines how, using cunning and courage, a person can change the course of history -- and stand up to the inhumanity in our midst.

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