Directed by: Anthony Maras
Premise: Based on true events. In 2008, a group of Muslim gunman besieged Mumbai, India in a series of coordinated attacks. Several terrorists converged on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and preyed upon guests and staff.
What Works: Hotel Mumbai is part of what’s now become a whole genre of dramas recreating terrorist attacks such as United 93, Patriot’s Day, 13 Hours, and 22 July. This is as good a film as any of those and in a few respects it’s better. Most of the film plays out at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel which was a destination for international travelers, making the site a cross section of society. The filmmakers tap into that quality with their diverse international set of characters. The guests are from all over the world and the story focuses on an American couple (Armie Hammer and Mariette Valsan) accompanied by their infant and their nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) as well as a Russian (Jason Isaacs) who ends up flung in the same quarters with this family. The cast is split between the guests and the hotel staff. Some of these people were well off such as the chef played by Anupam Kher but others were working poor like the waiter played by Dev Patel. The movie spends enough time early on establishing these people and giving them backgrounds and once the hotel is under siege the focus is on the heroism of the staff who risked their lives to see their guests to safety. The acting is terrific all around. The heroism is small and sometimes futile and no one gets a big dramatic acting moment. The humility of the actors to play their roles as traumatized and frightened gives the movie a vivid feel of fear. Also notable are the actors playing the gunman. They avoid the caricature of the hysterically angry Muslim. Instead, the terrorists are calm, even detached, while killing unarmed strangers. Their calmness is unnerving but also humanizing in an appropriate way. Reflecting the tragic circumstances of the real life event, there is a lot of bloodshed in Hotel Mumbai but the filmmakers are actually quite restrained; the most gruesome details are left off screen and the picture conveys the devastation wrought by the attack without crassly exploiting it.
What Doesn’t: Hotel Mumbai is not a pleasant movie to watch. In some ways, that’s to the film’s credit. Hotel Mumbai communicates the horror of mass death without turning the 2008 attack into a spectacle. But this film is an arduous viewing experience. And all that horror doesn’t lead to much of an epiphany. There is an inherent limitation to movies like this which begin and end with the terrorist attack. Because the focus is so narrow, Hotel Mumbai is unable to put these events into any larger context. The movie is a visceral and immediate story of survival and as that it succeeds but Hotel Mumbai doesn’t tell us what these events mean either for the people of India or for us as spectators.
Bottom Line: Hotel Mumbai is a grueling viewing experience. It may not tell us much about what the 2008 terrorist attack meant but it does recreate the event in a way that is violent but tasteful.
Episode: #744 (April 7, 2019)