Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
If I do not go to the same extreme as critics and hail this as one of the best films of the year, it is a reflection on the art, not on the story. I'm overwhelmed by the experience of Paul Rusesabagina, the undistinguished everyman who found a way to save 1200 lives during the Rwandan civil war. He did not set out to save lives – in fact, the film shows him always reluctant to take on more people – but once the refugees were in his care, he went out of his way to protect them and comfort them, using ingenuity at every turn, never resorting to any more violence than banging a pot around the kitchen. His is an amazing tale.
The film that tells it is good if not great. Since Western influence inspired the civil war in the first place, it seems like the real story trying to emerge is why the world looked away while Rwanda murdered itself. The film states openly that Europe and America don't give a damn about Africans getting killed, but it doesn't see the irony, that it must overcome the same problem. After a steady diet of Holocaust films, most recently the devastating "The Pianist," it's hard for a white audience to get worked up over some well-dressed people forced to collect their drinking water from a swimming pool (the horror!), whatever their race. A few bridges are wisely built with some prominent white characters, including a journalist who asks helpful questions about the Tutsis and Hutus so the audience has a primer, but I must insist again that the most interesting story is why the world did not intervene: If there's one thing us white Americans are good at, it's feeling awful sorry about how we didn't help out these people or those people when they needed us. The movie is at its best when it dangles the hope of foreign aid and then snatches it away.
But I'm focusing far too much on the negative. This is every bit the moving drama it should be with this source material, which two lead performances that bring out the vigorous humanity in their real subjects. The film's soundtrack also does everything right, ranging from innocuous pop songs while establishing the peace that's about to be broken, to perfectly ominous low-frequency hums during times of mounting dread. And the film often shows us a happy, joyous Rwanda, all the more powerful reminder that it's a place worth preserving. Whatever its inadequacies, the film as a whole is unforgettable work, a portrait of a real hero in a fascinating place. It is worthy of attention from every audience.