Hotel Rwanda filters the story of that country's shocking 1994 genocide through the actions of one man, an African hotel manager named Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who saved the lives of more than 1,200 refugees while anarchic killing madness reigned for a hundred days, unchecked by the rest of the world. He did so by housing them at his establishment despite dire personal risk and by using his skills as a worldly hotelier as well as his compassion as a decent human being. He did so despite the fact that he, a member of the ruling Hutu tribe, might just as easily have been killed by his own clansmen for harboring hunted Tutsis (whom the Hutu extremists called ''cockroaches''). He did so because his wife is a Tutsi (the family now lives in Belgium) and because he is a good man. Rusesabagina survived because, against all odds, he got lucky; the more than 800,000 dead Tutsis were not so fortunate.
In many ways, of course, such a powerful true story trumps all quibbles with the storytelling, especially for an audience so recently moved by the terrible news (and images) of death by natural destruction in the Indian Ocean, against which the rivers of blood from man-made destruction seem even more obscene. And those quibbles by no means diminish the honor due to Rusesabagina, or the glow of Cheadle's intense performance. The superb actor holds on to his subject's ''ordinariness,'' never playing hero. (Sophie Okonedo from Dirty Pretty Things plays a wife gentle enough to strengthen a man's courage.)
Still: As directed and co-written by Terry George (Some Mother's Son), Hotel Rwanda is a big, square drama that insistently drapes an unasked-for cloak of greatness on Rusesabagina's shoulders while waving a finger of shame at the United Nations and the entire global coalition of the unwilling. It is a bad day for narrative, if not for diplomacy, when there is only one 3-D character among the entire U.N. lot, clad in their blue helmets, and that role is rasped by Nick Nolte with moral remorse rather than his more usual hint of dissolution. Hotel Rwanda is a strange history lesson that leaves us more overlectured than properly overwhelmed.