2004 TIFF Update #6: "The Three Cheadles"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Every year, the TIFF has an actor who seems to be omni-present. This year's contenders include Laura Linney, Naomi Watts, and Don Cheadle. Cheadle takes top honors, appearing in three movies, all of which have reasonably high profiles. And he spans the gamut of acting functions, appear as a leading man in Hotel Rwanda, a supporting character in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and a member of an ensemble in Crash. And those who think of Cheadle as a sex symbol will be happy to know that he has a sex scene with Jennifer Esposito in the latter.

If you're like me, you probably paid little attention to the attempted genocide that occurred during the civil war in Rwanda in the mid-1990s (more than one million people died). I remember reading about it in the papers and occasionally seeing clips on the news, but it didn't leave much of an impression. (Or, as one character in the film puts it: "If people see this footage, they'll go, 'Oh my God! That's horrible!" then go on eating their dinner.") Hotel Rwanda serves a couple of important purposes - explaining what happened in the African country during 1994 and personalizing the story. Some critics have argued that the movie doesn't have a hard enough edge, but I think they're missing the point. This is a powerful film and it doesn't pull as many punches as its detractors would have us believe.

Hotel Rwanda introduces us to Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), the then-manager of the five-star Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali. When Hutu extremists took over the country in 1994, their first goal was to exterminate all of the Tutsi people (whom they call "cockroaches"). With the U.N. mired in red tape that rendered their peace-keepers ineffective and most of the world turning a blind eye, there was little to stop the Hutus from slaughtering the Tutsis. Paul, a Hutu married to a Tutsi (Sophie Okonedo), takes a stand, allowing Tutsi refugees to camp out at the hotel. Initially, he is able to employ bribery to keep the soldiers away, but, when his stocks of wine and whiskey run dry, he finds the circumstances increasingly desperate and he must resort to extreme measures to save not only the refugees but his family.

Hotel Rwanda offers a stirring reminder of the kind of senseless horror that can result from race and/or religious hatred. What happened in Rwanda isn't an isolated example. Conflicts that are occuring now re-enforce the notion that mankind is incapable of learning from history. Of course, most people don't know much about Rwanda, and that's something director Terry George (Some Mother's Son) is attempting to change with this movie. Hotel Rwanda is brutal and shocking when it needs to be, but it also has great emotional scope and power. We find ourselves deeply wrapped up in Paul's struggle, sharing his despair at the warfare tearing apart his country, his frustration and anger at the U.N.'s inability to act, and, eventually, his hope for a better tomorrow. Paul has been dubbed Rwanda's Oskar Schindler (he saved more than 1000 refugees), and, although this movie is not on par with Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winner, one can understand the validity of the comparison.

This role could represent a career performance for Cheadle, whose forceful and multi-dimensional portrayal keeps Hotel Rwanda at a consistently high level. Although Cheadle owns this movie, it would be unfair not to mention the supporting work of Sophie Okonedo, who brings depth and humanity to the part of Tatiana, Paul's wife. Nick Nolte plays the head of the U.N. peace-keeping forces with a phone-it-in acting job that isn't going to earn him many raves.

Hotel Rwanda is an important film. Unfortunately, that kind of classification often means a quick box-office death, which would be especially unfortunate because not only does the film deserve to be seen, but a fast bomb will result in Cheadle being overlooked at Oscar time. Whatever the movie's ultimate fate, however, I am grateful for having seen it. Not only did it give me a better-rounded perspective on the Rwandan tragedy, but it introduced me to a modern hero who stood against tyranny and oppression at the risk of losing all that was dear to him.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon offers a more compelling title than film. Director Niels Mueller, making his directorial debut, takes us back to 1974, when Watergate was preparing to take down the President. Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) is a furniture salesman who can do no right. His gruff boss (Jack Thompson) is losing patience with his inability to close sales; his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), is desperate to get a divorce; and his plans for a new business with his best friend (Don Cheadle) are in jeopardy because the bank is reluctant to provide a loan. As Sam's life disintegrates, he gropes for someone to blame, and he eventually decides that the source of his woes is the President of the United States. When he sees a news report about a helicopter landing on the White House lawn, Sam comes up with an audacious plan: hijack a plane and fly it into the White House, killing Nixon and making himself a martyr. But, as with everything else, Sam screws it up.

The Taxi Driver influence is unmistakable. The era is the same. The intense dissociation from society of the main character is the same. The need to lash out through violence is the same. Where The Assassination of Richard Nixon fails is in its inability to make Sam a compelling character. Here's an irritating loser and perennial whiner who is intent upon abdicating personal responsibility for his failures, prefering instead to blame others and/or society. It's a trial to spend 90 minutes with this man, and Mueller's somnambulant pace doesn't help.

If making a character insufferable constitutes giving a good performance, then Sean Penn provides a great one. A lot of his mannerisms seem canned, but there are times, such as when Sam experiences a volcanic meltdown at the furniture store, when Penn is galvanized. Unfortunately, most of the time, he's an accomplice to the film's overall torpor. Even great actors have "off" films, and this is Penn's first since I am Sam (maybe he should quit playing characters named "Sam").

The Assassination of Richard Nixon takes its central premise from an historical incident, but a great deal of the material emerges from the pens of screenwriters who want to make a seemingly obvious point about political corruption and indifference. Frequent clips of Nixon on TV add to the heavy-handed approach. They also attempt to enhance the verisimilitude of the era. Despite these and other cues, however, The Assassination of Richard Nixon doesn't really feel like it's taking place during the 1970s.

This is another movie where politics trump the narrative. Penn and the historical context will generate some interest, but the film's ultimate reception is likely to be as chilly as the month in which it receives its theatrical release (December 2004).

A lot of characters are woven into the tapestry of Crash, the feature directing debut of TV veteran Paul Haggis. The story unfolds in Los Angeles, where Don Cheadle plays Graham Waters, a police detective. Matt Dillon is LAPD officer Jack Ryan, a 17 year veteran of the force whose actions often cross the line. When he ends up fondling a woman (Thandie Newton) during a routine traffic stop, his partner (Ryan Phillippe) wants to sever their professional relationship. Meanwhile, the D.A., Rick Cameron (Brendan Fraser), and his wife, Jean (Sandra Bullock), become crime victims when their car is stolen by a pair of thieves (Chris "Ludicris" Bridges and Larenz Tate) - one of whom happens to be Graham's brother.

The best ensemble films are the ones in which the characters are given an opportunity to breathe (Magnolia, Short Cuts, and Nashville come to mind). With Crash, 105 minutes is barely enough time to let the numerous participants begin to inhale. For the most part, Crash is pleasant enough, and it deals with serious subjects, but it's difficult to shake the sensation that the characters are only half-formed. And the director's use of coincidence, karma, and irony to end nearly every plot thread is so forced that it comes across as a contrivance rather than a natural direction. It also takes away from the humanity of the characters.

Haggis has assembled a large, accomplished cast that includes Dillon, Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton, and Ryan Phillippe. Amongst other things, this group virtually assures that the film (which is currently without a distributor) will be sold.

The subject matter is racism and its manifestations, and how it is often as much the result of social conditioning and anger as of hatred and intolerence. In addition to the usual white-on-black manifestation of discrimination, we are confronted with black-on-Latino, Latino-on-Asian, white-on-Middle Eastern, and other permutations. Wherever cultural differences exist, there is room for tension. However, by depicting bigoted characters as otherwise caring individuals, Crash asks us to consider the causes of racism as much to examine its effects. In doing this, Crash sets itself apart, at least to a degree, from most other, similar motion pictures. Unfortunately, the running time is too short for us to get to know, or care about, the characters in a way that would make the film's themes strike a responsive chord.

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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