The questions raised by Hotel Mumbai — a partially fictionalized account of the November 2008 terrorist raid on 12 sites in Mumbai, India — are less about the quality of the movie (it’s competently made) and more about the moral justification for creating a film that recounts a terrorist assault in bloody detail.
The Pakistani-based mastermind of the attack, which lasted four days and killed an estimated 174 people, is in constant cellphone contact with the killers as they slaughter innocent people, telling them repeatedly, “The whole world is watching.” Yes, and now there’s a movie, giving the terrorists more exposure.
The movie focuses on those trapped in the huge, luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, to which four well-armed terrorists laid seige for more than 3 days (or about 16 hours, in this telling). There’s a mixed-race American couple (he’s Armie Hammer; she’s Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi), a couple unnamed backpackers, a brave Sikh culinary staffer (Dev Patal), a mysterious rich Russian (Jason Isaacs) and the cool-headed head chef (Anupam Kher).
Problem is, they’re are fictional except for the chef — composites, if you prefer. The filmmakers site the privacy of victims and survivors to justify this approach, but it eviscerates the only possible excuse for a fact-based terrorism movie, which is, in short, the facts (see, for example, United 93).
Highlighting the heroism of the staff who died to protect their guests loses a lot of impact when there’s only one real character. It also means many of the storytelling details are inventions, which underlines the movie’s function as an entertainment over its role in highlighting history. Does anyone really want emotional back story on a bunch of brainwashed murderers? I’m guessing not, with the possible exception of Islamic extremists who can now use Hotel Mumbai to trumpet a successful operation.
While effectively directed by Anthony Maras (his first feature), the movie is hard to watch for these and other reasons: It’s explicitly gruesome, and even its invented figures are brutalized and killed. Maybe there are some thick-skinned moviegoers curious about the Mumbai attacks who will get something out of Hotel Mumbai, but it’s hard to imagine who they might be.
Grade: D. Rated R. Playing at the Carolina Cinemark.
(Photos: Bleecker Street)