Rusesabagina was a Hutu and therefore not marked for execution. But he was married to a Tutsi, so his wife and children were of the lighter "mosquito race." When we meet him, he is an enterprising politician, unashamed to flatter and bribe the officers who come to his hotel to ogle the Western women, smoke Cuban cigars, and drink single-malt Scotch. Cheadle doesn't condescend to Rusesabagina in these early scenes: The implication is that this is how one succeeds in an authoritarian society—succeeds, that is, without perpetuating injustices himself. When the killings begin, Rusesabagina uses the same talents to keep his family—and the hundreds of Tutsis taking refuge in his hotel—from being dragged out and slaughtered.
Most of Hotel Rwanda consists of his increasingly desperate negotiations. Rusesabagina bargains with single malts until they run out, then blended whisky, then beer, then money from the hotel safe. Then he pleads with the American military, the United Nations, the French, and the fleeing media correspondents. In his journeys to and from the hotel, he sees the butchered bodies of men, women, and children, and Cheadle is extraordinary in the scenes in which he weeps with despair behind closed doors, then rises and summons up every last ounce of poise to keep the negotiations alive. Along the way, he wonders why no country—especially the United States—is sending troops to stop the massacre; he registers, bitterly, that the country has no oil reserves or strategic importance. This is the unspoken rebuke of Hotel Rwanda: that we were the cavalry who didn't come.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon did not take place, but its protagonist, Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn)—the real man's name Samuel Byck—really did set out to kill the president in 1973, after first writing a long letter to Leonard Bernstein (!) that laid out his reasons. In the film, Bicke's wife (Naomi Watts) is divorcing him, and he's unable to hold a job, first at the garage of his (mysteriously Yiddish-accented) Orthodox Jewish brother, then as a junior salesman in a cut-rate office-furniture store. Bicke concludes that to be a successful capitalist and live the American dream, one must also be a liar and a cheat—hence his fixation on Tricky Dicky, used somewhat generically as the ultimate liar/cheat. "This is a good country, maestro, filled with good people," he writes. "What happened, Mr. Bernstein, to the land of plenty?"
One of the filmmakers was on Air America a few weeks ago and made it clear that while Bicke was likely a schizophrenic, his schizophrenia was resonant: His antenna picked up the cynicism and disillusionment that really was in the air—and, for that matter, still is. Too true. But you can be sympathetic to the film's political subtext and still think that Bicke's case doesn't make for very good drama. You know everything you'll ever know about this guy in the first five minutes of the movie. And you also know you're going to spend the next 90 watching him get crazier and crazier; make innumerable pleading visits to his wife (Watts does well in this thankless role, which consists of finding sundry ways to recoil); and finally hatch his ludicrous, doomed plot.
This is one of Penn's punishing, single-dimension performances, and it seems to be even more whiningly masochistic than what's called for in the script (by Kevin Kennedy and the director, Niels Mueller). Early on, Bicke's boss (Jack Thompson) tells him he radiates success. Huh? Either the man is a moron, or he's making the best of a hopeless situation: Penn's Bicke is a quivering basket case from first frame to last. The Assassination of Richard Nixon might have worked if Penn had modulated Bicke's madness and allowed us to identify with him—even to believe that he could turn his life around. But we can't summon much empathy for someone who makes us cringe every second. It's a nice try, but it doesn't help to underscore his bleakest moments with Brian Wilson singing, "I just wasn't made for these times." Penn's Bicke would be a square peg in any time. (Read David Greenberg's take on the use of Richard Nixon as symbol in movies.) ... 8:30 a.m. PT
Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2004
It's gratifying to have gotten so many e-mails asking about the Movie Club 2005. Good news! As David Lynch put it in Twin Peaks: It—is—happening—again. We begin next Tuesday, Jan. 4, and continue through Friday.
Last year's club was a bit of a love-in, and it seemed unwise to try to recreate it. In other words, everyone who took part in 2004 was busy this year. Well, not everyone: The only holdover (apart from yours truly), the New York Times' A.O. Scott, will honor us with an occasional poolside missive from a much-earned tropical vacation. In return, we are covering his banana daiquiri tab. Two of my favorite critics—Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor—will appear in what I believe is an unprecedented Slate-Salon hands-across-the-Internet exchange. I have also invited Armond White from the New York Press. Yes, Armond White. If no critic infuriates me as much as Armond, none inspires me as much, either. In the last two days, three excellent twentysomething whippersnappers from good regional papers—Scott Foundas of the L.A. Weekly, Christopher Kelly from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe—will pop in to tell us how sadly out of touch the rest of us are.
Look for my 10-best/10-worst list on Thursday, Dec. 30. It's still onanistically in flux: Oh, how I love playing with my list! ... 11:30 a.m. PT