Paul Rusesabagina is one of those people. He's the kind of guy who can play people off each other, charm his enemies, inspire disgruntled allies, and make everything run smoothly at the Belgian-owned resort he manages. But greasing the local wheels for this favor or that is one thing; trying to save lives in the midst of genocidal madness is quite another.
Grace under pressure is one of the key themes to Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, which chronicles Rusesabagina's miraculous efforts in 1994 that saved the lives of some 1,200 Tutsi civilians during the rival Hutu genocide that resulted in the deaths of about 800,000 Tutsis (and their Hutu sympathizers) in a matter of weeks. The United States' unwillingness to respond to the horror -- presumably in the aftermath of losing 19 American soldiers during the Somalian civil war -- is a key subplot to the story, and George points a critical finger at the West. But ultimately, Hotel Rwanda plays out more dramatically as the story of the measure of one man.
The comparisons of Hotel Rwanda to Schindler's List are frequent and understandable, as both tell the story of unlikely heroes fighting to save lives during a genocide. And yet Hotel Rwanda is almost everything that Schindler's List is not. Whereas Steven Spielberg's 1993 masterpiece wears its emotions on its sleeve, shot in the noir-ish tones of black-and-white, George's film often feels like a work of interior compression, shot in rather plain color.
Spielberg held nothing back in his cold, brutal depiction of the physical and emotional brutality of the holocaust, clearly welcoming the movie's deserved R rating. (Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski didn't win his first Oscar for nothing.) George races in the other direction, offering only glimpses of the horror that was the Hutu tribe's genocidal rampage. The most obvious reason for this filmmaking strategy would be budget, as so much of the film feels like it could've been shot in somebody's backyard and nearby dirt road.
Here's another: Don Cheadle. For years, I've been cringing at the lack of substantial roles for Cheadle, who is arguably the most underappreciated (if not underused) actor in Hollywood -- and here he is, turning in what should easily be an Oscar-nominated performance. (He's already picked up a Golden Globe nomination.) There's a faint irony at play, though; one of Cheadle's greatest assets is his charisma. Even while playing borderline sociopath hoods in Devil in a Blue Dress and Out of Sight, or to a lesser degree one of Ocean's Eleven (or Twelve, I suppose), Cheadle strides through a scene so unselfconsciously that you tend to forget he's acting.
But the key to Cheadle's performance is how he matches George's camerawork and narrative tone. On a recent Daily Show appearance, Cheadle admitted that George told him the studio had wanted Will Smith in the role, while earlier reports had suggested studio support for Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes. They all have a certain charm, but I would argue that Cheadle is the one actor who can convey depth of emotion without resorting to histrionics.
In one particular scene, Paul has ventured outside the resort compound to forage for supplies for the hundreds of refugees he has taken in, bartering and conniving his way through town. For a brief moment, Paul gets a brutal look at the reality of the genocide. Maintaining his composure, he urges his driver onward, and it isn't until he locks himself into a room that he allow his emotions to overwhelm him -- for a moment. For that brief moment, the anguish spreads across his entire body, and it's an electric moment, for it feels as if Paul may well explode before our eyes. There's a knock on the door, and Paul gathers himself together and slips back into character, remembering that sometimes perception is reality.
Other compelling scenes include those played out with Sophie Okonedo as Paul's Tutsi wife, Tatiana, who must constantly remind her Hutu husband of the importance of their partnership over his desire to take singular action. Okonedo, a dead ringer for Gabrielle Union, is a perfect match for Cheadle, conveying emotion without manipulating the audience. Elsewhere, Nick Nolte provides some star power and a barometer of sorts as a Canadian U.N. peacekeeper whose frustration at the lack of support spills over in a chilling moment. "You're not even a nigger," Nolte bitterly hisses at the racism behind the West's abandonment of the Tutsis. "You're an African." Paul, momentarily stunned, once again regroups and goes back into action. Cheadle's ability to convey fluidity of movement is almost as impressive as Paul's own skills, a testament to grace under pressure in more ways than one.