A hotel manager who gave sanctuary to hundreds of Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Paul Rusesabagina has a biography that more than merely echoes that of Oskar Schindler, the World War II industrialist hero profiled in Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. Through some coincidence of history—or, more likely, reduction of artistic imagination—they seem like virtually the same person: Both were company men who became reluctant saviors when the prospect of mass slaughter stirred their dozing consciences. In spite of their ethnic exemption from the genocidal campaign—Schindler was a Gentile, Rusesabagina a Hutu—they each risked their lives and sacrificed their material possessions in order to save people from certain death. While both their achievements make for stirring cinema, the events depicted in Hotel Rwanda took place in the recent past, so it isn't enough for the filmmakers to soft-pedal the politics in favor of broad inspiration.
To his credit, director Terry George strongly establishes the myopia of third-world resorts like the Rusesabaginas' Hotel Milles Collines, a four-star oasis removed from the chaos beyond its walls. Played with fierce conviction by Don Cheadle, Rusesabagina ably negotiates between these separate worlds until a Hutu uprising, spurred by inflammatory radio messages, threatens his livelihood and his family. With the region's few U.N. peacekeeping troops, led by Nick Nolte, hamstrung by restrictions, little stops the Hutus from pursuing a colonial blood feud against their Tutsi neighbors. At first, Rusesabagina bribes the aggressors with cash, liquor, and other favors in order to save his family, but his mission soon expands to include children and other refugees holed up at his hotel.
Showing traces of the well-meaning paternalism that dogs many Western films about Africa, Hotel Rwanda doesn't go far enough in indicting Europeans and Americans for protecting their own while failing to intervene in time to stop the mass killings. The real story here isn't about the few hundred people that Rusesabagina saved, but the hundreds of thousands that died needlessly. A former journalist who co-wrote the urgent 1993 IRA drama In The Name Of The Father, George works hard to put his hero's actions in context, and succeeds in showing the tragic apathy with which Western nations treat African strife. The Rwandan genocide was one of the most shameful marks on Bill Clinton's presidency, but for all the film's powerful images, George stops short of the forceful political statement that Rusesabagina's story demands. In the end, he's drawn more to the silver lining than the cloud.