I just watched Hotel Rwanda
and it is a powerful movie. As with all good movies about atrocities, it only shows you the barest sliver of what really happened, because any more and you couldn't sit through the movie. But that sliver is enough.
It is particularly compelling because you have no idea going in what happened to Paul Rusesabagina's family. You can guess that he might have survived because it is his story and because they didn't tell you up front that he died. But his wife? His children? His nieces? His cousins? You have no idea.
It is a compelling story of the power of good even in the face of great evil. And it is a compelling story of how society can utterly break down.
As it happened, I was watching Breaker Morant
before I left, on DVD. I found it harder to watch, although the only atrocity is a miscarriage of justice, because from the beginning you know that it is a matter of grave importance to the British Empire that Morant and his mates be convicted. And therefore you know where this must go.
I know I'm criticizing an officially great movie, but I think it might have been an even better story
if it only gradually became clear that Morant and his mates have no chance at all. If, at first, they think they only have to prove that they did everything under orders, and justice will prevail. And slowly, they, and we, see how the cards have been stacked. I don't think we should know until the third act that the Powers that Be have foreordained the outcome.
It's easy enough to do. The first prosecutor is ordinary; he's replaced with a super-prosecutor from London. The judge is at first fair, then begins overruling the defense's objections as it becomes clear that they might pull out a victory.
If nothing hangs in the balance then all you have is how the guys live through the mess. That's a story, too, but why not give them more to react to, give the movie more to work with, give us something to root for. Otherwise all we have to root for is that they die like men, and that is not much to root for.
The more hangs in the balance, the more dramatic the story.