Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
New on DVD: Hotel Rwanda

As Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of  the acclaimed 2004 film Hotel Rwanda (newly available in Kyrene Corridor video stores), Don Cheadle moves and speaks with the brisk, urgent earnestness of a man born to provide customer service.

As a manager at the Hotel Des Milles Collines in Kigali, Rwanda, Paul strides through the halls and lobbies and kitchens, greasing the palms of vendors, schmoozing the visitors and dignitaries, keeping tabs on the staff.

The soft modesty of his voice, his swift, confident stride and his dapper politeness all bespeak a deference that is not the same as subservience, and a pride bordering on smugness at the tight ship he runs.

It’s the spring of 1994, however, and business is about to get much more hectic at the hotel. Ethnic tensions between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis, once favored by the colonial Belgians, are about to boil over into a hellish civil war and genocide in the tiny Central African country.

By the summer of that year, nearly a million Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus will be murdered. The U.S., still smarting over its military losses in Somalia, takes a pass on intervention; the U.N. does little more.

Hotel Rwanda focuses on how Rusesabagina, himself a Hutu, applies the same resources that serve him well as a hotel manager to saving the lives of more than 1,200 people who would otherwise have fallen victim to the Hutu militia and military.

With a combination of influential contacts, bribes, flattering diplomacy and some clever truth-bending, Paul manages, first, to prevent the slaughter of these “cockroaches”—as the Hutu radio propagandists call them—and then to shelter them in the Milles Collines until...well, until he can think of the next desperate ploy to keep them alive a while longer.

The American actor Cheadle has been appearing in films and television for 20 years, playing characters ranging from hoodlums to demolition experts to district attorneys with bearing and sharp intelligence.

But he’s probably never had a role quite as good as Paul, a hero unmotivated by machismo, or by anything other than the desire to keep his refugees—who include his wife (Sophie Okonedo) and children—alive, and to preserve his own ethical self-respect. Cheadle’s big scene, breaking down while changing his shirt, is an acting tour de force in miniature.

In trying to widen awareness of this largely ignored genocide, the Irish director Terry George, who co-wrote the script with Keir Pearson, employs a discretion worthy of a hotel manager. He doesn’t shove our faces into gore and horror for two hours. George and Pearson approach the story as a conventional political thriller with an unusually horrific backdrop, balanced by unusually heart-lifting foreground.

What violence we are shown in the film, though appalling, is kept at a distance, and George gives the American audience name players like Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix in supporting roles. These are all clearly commercial considerations, but they also seem aesthetically sensible—this story wouldn’t be served by lurid detail—and politically shrewd.

George wants audiences to care about Rwanda, and he knows that audiences can’t be made to care about what they won’t watch.

The DVD—The special features on the Hotel Rwanda disc can’t be called fun, but they are remarkable. They include commentaries by Terry George and the real-life Paul Rusesabagina, along with commentaries on selected scenes by Don Cheadle and by Wyclef Jean, who performs the song over the end titles.

There are also a couple of documentaries, the most astounding of which shows Rusesabagina and his wife—who have lived in Belgium since the war—returning to Rwanda and visiting a monument in which the mummified bodies of massacre victims from a mass grave are displayed. It’s a shocking and heartbreaking testament to the importance of the film’s subject.

Rated PG-13, Hotel Rwanda is too violent and scary for younger kids, but older kids could find it gripping.