In 1994, 800,000-plus Tutsis were butchered by their Hutu neighbours while the West debated whether this was genocide or merely isolated “genocidal acts”– i.e. not serious enough to warrant intervention. A decade on and the conflict is beginning to arrive on cinema screens, and most of the attempts to turn a dark day in human history into screen entertainment are taking the Schindler’s List approach – finding the rare good thing in a sea of bloody mayhem. As has director Terry George in this effectively realised true story about Rwanda’s own “Schindler”, Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who risked his Hutu hide to save upwards of 1,000 Tutsis.
This is an incredibly tense piece of work that understands not just how to craft drama but how to cast a movie – and cast against type. Which is why man of action Nick Nolte is playing a benign but impotent United Nations peacekeeper. Joaquin Phoenix, meanwhile, is effective as the maverick cameraman who first got pictures of the atrocities out. But both stars take a back seat to Don Cheadle as Rusesabagina. Forget completely that dreadful Cockney accent in Ocean’s 11/12 – Cheadle comes up with a complex portrayal of a man who is Hutu by birth, a wheeler-dealer by experience but a humanitarian by nature. And Sophie Okonedo, as his Tutsi wife, looks like she’ll be leaving TV roles and bit parts behind for ever. Mass murder and mass entertainment may not mix, but this is probably as near as any film is going to get.
© Steve Morrissey 2004