The world is always ten years too late. Count forward from 1933 to the belated recognition of Nazi Germany's 'Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.' Count forward ten years from 1994, the year of the Hutu massacre of more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis, and you will find that suddenly there is a visible confrontation with the genocide. I have seen three powerful documentaries so far this year: the Canadian film "Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire," the recounting by General Dallaire of his year in Rwanda as commander of the United Nations force - the impotent force of just 300 soldiers - stationed there to prevent exactly what did happen, because no other country would support sending enough troops to stop the massacres. And I've seen two films by the American Anne Aghion (who lives in France, where the films were financed): "In Rwanda We Say… The Family that Does Not Speak Dies," and "Gacaca, Living Together Again in Rwanda." Both of them deal with the aftermath of the genocide; the first is shot in a village where the town's Hutus, who killed their own neighbors, are returning to live once again among the survivors. The second is about the legal procedings, or Gacaca, by which criminally responsible Hutus may publicly admit their crimes in exchange for either amnesty or a reduced sentence.
And now there is "Hotel Rwanda," based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, the Hutu manager of the Milles Collines Hotel in Kigali, who managed to save the lives of more than a thousand Tutsis and good Hutus by keeping them in the hotel during the hundred days of the massacre. Don Cheadle is Paul, and his performance is a miracle of understatement, never leaving his persona of the smooth, bright, soft-spoken accommodator to the rich and powerful, qualities that will serve him well during the violence. He's married to a Tutsi, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), and they have two children. Unaware at first of the extent of the violence, he tries to minimize it to his family and his hotel employees; but soon all the white guests leave on special flights and the depth of the horror becomes apparent.
Very quickly Paul's illusions are destroyed, as every bit of good news turns to dust - the news footage of the killings does not bring the world's attention to Rwanda, the United Nations does not send more troops to support the few in Kigali - and Paul must come up with more and more bribes, more flattery, more bargaining for time with the Hutu leaders. Cheadle is at his best here, letting us in on his fear and inner turmoil as well as inviting us to join him in buttering up the generals with Cuban cigars and single malt Scotch. It becomes a race simply to survive another day, with another gimmick, another delay, another sly redirection of the plans of the Hutus who want him to let them kill all his protected guests, as he continues to call them.
No one else in the film can match the depth and complexity of Cheadle's performance, which has been rightly nominated for an Academy Award. It's a misfortune for me to have seen the real U.N. commander, Romeo Dallaire, before I saw Nick Nolte in the role, because Nolte has a hard time making us believe in him through a script that's been barely written for the character. Sophie Okonedo as Tatiana is just fine, though, and she has also been nominated for an Oscar. The film is powerful, and well made by director and cowriterTerry George. I wonder what we'll be watching ten years from now.