Get local news delivered straight to your phone
That Hotel Rwanda is rated PG-13 is a mark of both failure and ambition. A nearly bloodless account of the 1994 frenzy that left more than 800,000 Rwandans dead, director Terry George’s docudrama is too guarded to conjure the full dread of the events it depicts. But that’s exactly what George, a veteran of Belfast’s fratricides, intended. This is a parable, not a horror story, and it’s designed to reach people who grab the remote whenever words like “genocide” darken their viewing options.
Hotel Rwanda may not be literally modeled on Schindler’s List, but it does undertake the same sort of mission: edifying without overwhelming, and finding glimmers of hope amid carnage. Both movies are also stories of scheming, somewhat vain businessmen who become heroes by default. The most significant difference is that this movie’s Schindler, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), is among the possible victims. When Hutus, members of the country’s majority tribe, begin exterminating Tutsis, Paul can invoke two kinds of privilege: He’s Hutu, and he’s also the manager of the Hotel des Milles Collines, a Belgian-owned luxury hostelry preferred by European and North American visitors to Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Yet Paul’s wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), is Tutsi—which puts her and their children at risk.
When the Hutu hate-radio station announces the beginning of the anti-Tutsi campaign—“We must cut the tall trees”—Paul can relocate his threatened family to the Milles Collines. They’ll be safe there, sheltered by the presence of the United Nations peacekeeping force’s Col. Oliver (Nick Nolte), TV journalist Jack (Joaquin Phoenix), and other postcolonial dignitaries. In addition, Paul has long been generous with prominent Hutu politicians and military men, keeping them supplied with their favorite varieties of cigars and whiskey. So Paul doesn’t worry when, on a trip to the liquor warehouse, he happens to see large quantities of machetes arriving.
Then the bloodbath begins, and the United Nations does nothing. Soon, in fact, most white people are being evacuated from the country. Paul is left with only the limited favors he can beg from his stalwart boss (Jean Reno in a desk-bound variation on his usual action-hero role) in Brussels and his own wiles. Staying in Kigali is hazardous, and leaving is impossible. Word gets around that the Milles Collines is a haven, and Paul finds himself running a refugee center. As militant Hutus taunt and threaten Paul, he alternately attempts to arrange Tatiana and the kids’ evacuation and plans their suicide.
Paul’s own fate isn’t in doubt, of course: Rusesabagina is credited as the consultant to George and Keir Pearson’s script. Although it skillfully evokes the menace to Paul and his family, Hotel Rwanda never seems like the sort of film that might end with their bodies among the piles of anonymous corpses. It’s both too mild-mannered and too well-meaning for that. Entirely characteristic is an early scene in which Paul finds his young son, the witness to a massacre, hiding in bushes near his house and covered in blood. Paul—and the viewer—assumes the boy has been slashed by machetes, but in fact he’s physically unscathed. The blood is that of some anonymous victims, not the boy’s own.
Support City Paper!
That’s pretty much how Hotel Rwanda proceeds: danger to the characters we know, death for the ones we don’t. (Though it does resurrect one minor character, an apparent goner, in its refugee-camp coda.) The movie’s nerviest, most harrowing scene, in which George’s protagonist discovers what one Hutu triumphalist meant by describing a road as “clear,” is presented as something that happens foremost to Paul. The greatest ordeal is to be a witness, an audience-flattering formulation that makes every viewer a hero.
Yet the film can also take a more complicated view of heroism. Aside from its simple audacity of bringing the Rwandan terror to American multiplexes, the most interesting thing about Hotel Rwanda is its central character. Portrayed by Cheadle with iron resolve and quiet assurance, Paul is not merely an audience surrogate, a decent man getting a crash course in barbarism. He’s also a chameleon of class and race who discovers that neither his place in society nor society itself is by any means guaranteed. A master of the existing order who must transform himself to negotiate anarchy, Paul has a complexity the rest of the movie lacks.
As terse and crusty as their creator, the films of Clint Eastwood recall those of such old-Hollywood masters as John Ford and Howard Hawks. Maybe that’s why the slightest of them, noble-tough-guy trifles such as Absolute Power and True Crime, draw so many favorable reviews, while darker, somewhat less formulaic Eastwood films such as last year’s Mystic River are greeted with rapture. Now, for the first time in his directing career, Eastwood has followed one of his A-list pictures with another one: Million Dollar Baby is hardly the masterpiece its partisans proclaim, but it is a cunning hybrid of genres that’s refreshed by a major midway twist.
Like Unforgiven, arguably Eastwood’s best film, Million Dollar Baby is the story of a man who’s drawn disastrously back to a life he has abandoned. Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is not an ex-gunslinger, but a semiretired boxing coach. He was “the best cut man in the business,” according to narrator Eddie “Scrap” Dupris, yet another in Morgan Freeman’s string of grubby sages. Frankie still runs a gym—the Hit Pit, in a curiously rustic-looking section of Los Angeles—and coaches promising young fighters. He’s unwilling to commit them to major bouts, however; on some level, he expects them all to end up like Scrap, his only friend, who lost an eye in the ring. Growing impatient for their shots, Frankie’s protégés invariably leave him, as happens with his latest boxer soon after the film opens.
Scrap has a new pupil in mind for Frankie, though: Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a greasy-spoon waitress from the Ozarks with fistloads of resentment against family and society. Of course, the traditionalist gym owner rejects her as too old (she’s 31) and a “girl.” If Frankie doesn’t want a new fighter, however, he does crave something else that’s a motif in Eastwood’s later films: a daughter. For reasons that are never explained, Frankie’s biological child returns his weekly letters unopened, reflecting an estrangement so troubling to her dad that he attends mass daily. A philosophical cuss, Frankie can’t resist challenging the parish priest on points of Catholic dogma—a bit of comic relief that proves utterly serious in the movie’s unexpected final third.
Paternally, Frankie begins to give Maggie some tips. Soon, he’s training her in earnest and then—after he wrests control from the hustler to whom he’s entrusted her—managing her. Maggie proves undefeatable, and her ethnic heritage dovetails with Frankie’s investigation of his roots: He’s teaching himself Gaelic and reading lots of Yeats. At a fight in a sketchily simulated London, he has Maggie enter the ring in a green jacket with a Gaelic motto on its back. Maggie’s Irish blood and American heart seem to be propelling her straight to the big time, but then Million Dollar Baby takes a sharp turn—and the lyricism of Yeats and the inadequacy of religion become more important than working-class grit.
Adapted by scripter Paul Haggis from stories in F.X. Toole’s 2000 book Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner, Million Dollar Baby doesn’t just accept archetypes and clichés—it embraces them. Eastwood’s growly performance is the ultimate distillation of his rueful-older-man roles, Freeman is unabashedly Shawshank-ian, and Swank restarts her movie career by returning to the tomboy mode that initiated it. Eastwood’s deft direction merely underplays the story’s fundamental sentimentality: The usual sports-flick cues are present, but submerged in regret and self-doubt, much as cinematographer Tom Stern’s stark images conceal the performers in shadows and silhouettes.
Making old-fashioned, exceedingly well-crafted B-pictures, Eastwood can surprise or disappoint, and he often does both in the same movie. In this case, viewers who know (or guess) where the story is going are at a disadvantage: Much of the film’s power comes from its sudden shift in tone, and its final act neatly subverts what could have been merely another glorification of the unconscionable “sport” of boxing. But Million Dollar Baby’s cranky humanism is something special even when the movie’s on autopilot: Predictable as it may be, it’s a pleasure to watch Eastwood be gruff, Freeman be wry, and Swank be plucky.CP