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Film review: Hotel Rwanda

Don Cheadle stars as a hotel manager who saved nearly 1,300 Rwandans during civil war there in the '90s.
Don Cheadle stars as a hotel manager who saved nearly 1,300 Rwandans during civil war there in the '90s.
Blid Alsbirk, United Artists

The obvious points of comparison for "Hotel Rwanda" are to "The Killing Fields" and "Schindler's List." The three films have much in common, in particular that they're all true-life stories about ordinary men who became heroes during times of mass genocide.

Don Cheadle stars as Paul Rusesabagina, a real-life hotel manager whose actions saved nearly 1,300 Rwandans whose lives were threatened by the bloody civil war there in the early 1990s. Paul appears to be safe from the racial strife — he's a member of the Hutus, who are hunting down and killing Rwandans who happen to be Tutsis.

However, several of Paul's family members are Tutsis, so when the Hutu militia starts encroaching on his neighborhood, he agrees to take in Tutsis at his hotel, which is being protected by a handful of United Nations forces.

The sympathetic U.N. commander in charge (Nick Nolte) warns them that his soldiers have been advised not to fire on the Hutus. And as the fighting around them becomes more fierce, things aren't looking good.

Much of the film revolves around the relationship between Paul and his Tutsi wife, Tatiana (played by Sophie Okonedo). That story line pretty much dominates the film, in fact, and several other characters are given short shrift.

As a result of the decision by the filmmakers to show things from that limited viewpoint — to show how isolated and fearful the characters were of the chaos going on around them — the film feels a little dishonest and diminished. It's never quite as effective as "The Killing Fields" or "Schindler's List" in that the film's overall impact is not as great and it doesn't linger in the memory.

But there's no denying that "Hotel Rwanda" does have its share of powerful moments; in particular, a scene in which Paul and another hotel employee unknowingly — due to fog — drive into a mass grave.

Cheadle brings a needed intensity to the film; his character's fear and compassion are quite vivid. Nolte is also good in his limited screen time, as is Joaquin Phoenix, who plays a news cameraman.

"Hotel Rwanda" is rated PG-13 for strong scenes of violence (including shootings and explosive mayhem, some of it overheard), occasional use of strong profanity and racial epithets, and some brief gore and disturbing images. Running time: 121 minutes.