Rwanda, 1994. Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), manages the Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali. A low-key, smooth-talking man, he is a master at schmoosing, looking deferential and cutting deals to secure the Cuban cigars and single-malt whiskeys required to keep his rich, influential guests feeling sufficiently pampered.
Rusesabagina will need every contact he has made. Hutu extremists are determined to wipe out the Tutsi people, whom they refer to as "cockroaches." Rusesabagina ... Paul, if you will, is Hutu. His wife Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo) is a Tutsi.
SPOILER ALERT: THIS PARAGRAPH REVEALS PLOT POINTS: As the situation grows ever more grave, Paul finds himself with fewer and fewer paying guests and increasing numbers of refugees. Soldiers keep appearing at the door, the threats become more imminent and Paul becomes a hero, repeatedly, by doing what he has always done. He schmooses, he looks deferential, he cuts deals and he calls his rich, influential friends seeking help for his family and for the refugees.
Paul's brilliance comes from his realization that, for everyone on the outside, the hotel is an institution. Other buildings in the area fall, but the hotel remains because it is perceived differently than other buildings. His job has always been to make a building seem like something more, something rare and special. Now, despite the dwindling resources, he must maintain that illusion. Otherwise, it will become just one more target for the maniacally cheering, machete-wielding, bloodthirsty soldiers. END SPOILERS.
After memorable supporting roles in loads of movies, Don Cheadle finally gets center stage, and he handles it beautifully, never overplaying a scene. Just as good is Sophie Okonedo, who takes the spouse role and makes sure the character has substance. Nick Nolte is good as a kind, but ineffectual UN officer and Joaquin Phoenix delivers as a journalist involved with a Rwandan woman.
With the violence toned-down enough for a PG-13, Hotel Rwanda has the opportunity to be more than an urgent fact-based thriller. Nearly a million human beings died in the Rwanda civil war, yet it was treated like a tribal dust-up by the media. Can a movie teach people, including media people, that suffering should never be dismissed?