Hotel Rwanda

Joaquin Phoenix isn’t in “Hotel Rwanda” very much, but he’s on screen long enough for his character, a news reporter named Jack, to summarize exactly how the world will react when they see the unfolding massacre on CNN: “They’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible!’ Then they’ll go on eating their dinners.”

Even at that, he’s probably overstating the West’s empathy for Africa’s intra-national squabbles. “Hotel Rwanda” is set in the capital city of Kigali in 1994, where Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is manager of the upscale Hotel de Mille Collines. (You can tell Paul was a real person because no fictional character would ever have a name that unwieldy.) Rwanda was arbitrarily divided years earlier into two separate tribes, the Hutus and the Tutsis, the latter of which mostly governed, often oppressively. Now factions within the Hutu group are urging their fellows to rise up and kill the Tutsis.

Paul is a Hutu, but he does not subscribe to the militant notions being advocated by some. He, like most of his sensibly minded fellow Rwandans, realizes there is so little actual difference between the two tribes that it is often impossible to tell which one a person belongs to without asking. Paul is a calm businessman, dressed at all times in a suit and tie, unfailingly polite and efficient. He runs a good hotel, and he runs a good life.

But tensions flare and soon people are being arrested and executed by the Hutu militia. Paul tells his wife (Sophie Okonedo) that he cannot call in favors to help their incarcerated neighbor because “he is not family.” Then he rolls over in bed and we see in his eyes that he knows this policy of selective protection cannot last. He’s too good a person.

Sure enough, within days his hotel is home to 800 refugees. Paul realizes quickly that warlords are easily placated if you have enough cash; bribery, tact and a cool common sense make him an excellent leader, protecting his refugees from the slaughter that reigns elsewhere in the city.

Don Cheadle, who has received critical acclaim but little mainstream notice for his previous work (“Boogie Nights,” “Traffic,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” etc.), performs here as though it is the very culmination of his long, busy career, which it probably is. His commitment to the role and to the film is unwavering as he infuses the character with life and texture. We know Paul was a real man, but Cheadle makes us FEEL it.

Sophie Okonedo plays the supportive wife gracefully, sinking her teeth into a few choice moments when Mrs. Rusesabagina is perturbed by her husband’s priorities. I should also mention Nick Nolte, who plays a grizzled, reluctantly heroic U.S. colonel with characteristic aplomb.

I don’t understand the political and diplomatic complexities at play here, and director Terry George (who co-wrote the script with Keir Pearson) doesn’t take as much care as he ought to in explaining them, leaving us in the dark, at times, in regard to who’s killing whom and why. He also is too careful about which characters whose names we know are allowed to die, setting up too many false alarms and tearful resolutions. And yet it is still a powerful, sobering film, alive with energy and urgency. It brings immediacy to a tragedy that most of us paid little attention to when it was happening.

B+ (1 hr., 50 min.; PG-13, some strong violence, some mild profanity, some partial nudity.)