It’s hard to say if I was entertained by Hotel Mumbai, a movie focused on four horrific days where a group of well-armed terrorists committed a massacre at India’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel in 2008. It was only last year that we got a movie about a similar event (22 July offers even-tempered depiction of horrific 2011 Norway attack), and it wasn’t exactly an entertaining experience. Are mass shootings now the war movie fodder of Hollywood cinema? Is the audience expected to find a visceral/popcorn thrill from watching actors portraying real people or composites of real people killed by suicidal gunmen? Are we to gain some deeper understanding into the perpetrators and is that something worth doing, maybe allowing us to rise above and recognize humanity behind acts of evil?
If Hotel Mumbai at least allows us to consider such questions, maybe it’s worth having such a complicated relationship with the movie screen. It’s hard to judge a film like this, which includes all the sentimentality you might expect from a Hollywood film. The emotional manipulation just happens while you are forced to stare into the abyss for two hours. The music by Volker Bertelmann is all about tension, dread with a dash of hope and relief. The main characters all have family and feature such recognizable actors as Armie Hammer, Dev Patel and Jason Isaacs. Well, the latter, plays a rather soulless Russian gangster-type, caught in the mayhem, who still tries to play white knight for David’s (Hammer) wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi). But even one of the killers was born of a loving couple, and when things look dark for him, he calls his father to cry on the phone and tell him that he loves him and the family. There is also the dramatic device of a crying baby that is used throughout to elevate the tension.
Writer-director Anthony Maras has composed an impressive, sincere feature film debut. It’s well edited and paced, believably performed and often tense. It opens with the baby-faced Muslim gunmen arriving by boat and headed off to their targets by taxi while communicating via earpiece to someone they call “The Bull” (voiced by Pawan Singh). The religious problem is addressed several times. We know these men have been radicalized. The Bull reminds them of the paradise that awaits after their work is done and refers to their targets as infidels, no matter their seeming religion. Later, when Patel’s character, a waiter named Arjun, is seen as suspect by one of the wealthy white ladies holing up in a room with him because of his beard and turban, he takes time to show her pictures of his family and explain the sacredness of his turban. He is Sikh, not to be confused with a Muslim, much less a radical Muslim. Then there is the uncanny power revealed in Zahra’s Muslim prayer when she finds herself staring down the barrel of an AK-47 pointed at her head.
There’s a subtle struggle between being honest to the story and how to depict the unarmed heroics that try to rise above the violence. Maras heightens things via editing and music but does not stoop to slow motion or exposition. More than ever before, war has become a battle for hearts and minds. Just the threat of gun violence is part of that. How the unarmed rise up to those wielding guns is handled powerfully by Maras, with distant shots that put the two subjects on either side of the weapons. But, as we see by the end of this film, it indeed takes violence to stop that violence. Maras does try to make Zahra’s prayer a moment in the film and keeps the ultimate demise of the gunmen as unsensational as possible, but it doesn’t change the fearsome reality of violence, and the mixed messages it sends as popcorn fare.
It wasn’t too much more than a week ago that a white supremacist ideologue took up arms to slaughter unarmed Muslims in New Zealand. That most recent mass shooting led to this movie’s distributor in New Zealand to pull it from theaters, a day after it opened. If the people behind this film do not believe it will make a difference, what does it matter that these movies are made at all? There is a reason why New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has refused to call the shooter who was taken into custody by name. She has even banned his manifesto from being distributed in her country. I can’t tell you this kind of film really makes any difference, except to entertain and exploit our modern-day fears. Awareness is multi-dimensional, however. See the movie or don’t, but I do believe one thing: the modern war movie may indeed be the mass shooting movie, and it involves all of us.
Hotel Mumbai runs 123 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area at the following theaters:
The movie had its Florida premiere at the Miami Film Festival earlier this month. Bleecker Street provided a screening link for the purpose of this review.