Hotel Mumbai is a very harrowing, suspenseful dramatisation of the 2008 attack on the city’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel during which the city was attacked by a ten-strong group of heavily armed Islamic terrorists. Its riveting stuff- as a thriller its effective indeed, and its very similarity to Gerard Butler’s Olympus Has Fallen etc makes uncomfortable viewing as we know, as disturbing as things are, this time around its based on true events. Tragedy as entertainment always has an uncomfortable feeling about it, but it makes everything seem more intense, too. The comic book heroics of Butler’s films, and others like it (I suppose, after all, you’d possibly include ‘classics’ like Die Hard in that list) have to be stripped out because these are just normal people in unusual situations and really, in the real world there’s no place for wisecracks or fisticuffs in the face of grenades and assault rifles.
So we have this weird dichotomy going on, in that as the outrage progresses, we have the misguided expectation that Armie Hammer’s tall handsome American architect or Jason Isaac’s obnoxious Russian with a military background will step up with some heroics like a typical thriller would have it, but as this film is based on a true event and such Hollywood nonsense never happened, there is a weird frustration through the film. The heroism of this film is of a different kind entirely- its one of simply surviving, and mostly of the staff protecting its guests. Perhaps you could call it civilisation versus barbarism. Perhaps we have been so used to those Hollywood action films where Willis, Butler or Neeson step up with their own brand of justice to right the violent wrongs that we struggle with their absence.
I suppose my point is, this film should possibly be a horror film, and this films only failure, really, is that its indeed ostensibly a thriller. Mans inhumanity to man is always a depressing subject but what I found most distressing was the familiarity of it all. Terrorist incidents such as this frequently seem to be in the news – bombings in foreign countries, shootings etc in which the victims almost inevitably become just numbers, statistics, and we’ve seen films simplify such events in action-thrillers of the past.
Partly this itself becomes a problem for the film- the statistics of this attack are incomprehensible, really. Over the three days that the event lasted, 174 people died, including 9 of the 10 attackers, and over 300 people were wounded. To its credit, the film shy’s away from sensationalising the events and attempts to show the simple heroism of staff trying to protect the hotels guests and those guests trying to survive and protect their loved ones. Its a human story but inevitably because of the numbers involved the film is limited to showing events from the perspective of the few, and possibly over-simplifies things.
I suppose my issue with this film -that perhaps it is ‘only’ a thriller is wholly unfair. But the polarisation of the world today, of good and evil and the fevered hysterics of both national and international politics of our day… this week alone in the UK we have witnessed our Parliament reduced to heated arguments more suited to a drunken rabble in a pub than the distinguished statesmen those elected representatives should be. I hold modern news media to blame for this (personality politics is a very modern 24-hour news thing, as journalists turn news into entertainment with viewing figures in mind) as much as social media. My contention is that perhaps film should do more than just dramatise events such as this, perhaps it should add some commentary somehow. How you do this without inflaming peoples viewpoints or world-beliefs I don’t know- maybe you can’t, hence my consideration that my issue is likely unfair.
So the terrorists are monsters, and the film only makes a perfunctory attempt to get into their reasoning, their mindset. The film suggests that they are victims themselves, coerced into the carnage by shadowy figures back in Pakistan who have masterminded the attack. The awful inhumanity of killing innocent civilians, and how the terrorists have justified it in their minds so those civilians are perceived as infidels and indeed as sub-human, is something too large for a thriller such as this to encompass really. Maybe no film could. The fascination in films about serial-killers for example, is partly that ‘thing’ about getting into their minds, how they reason, function, see other people as victims/prey. How do you get into the minds of terrorists without being charged with rationalising their atrocities? And if you don’t try, isn’t that over-simplification demonising them? Failing to get to the reasons why the world is as polarised as it is? Is it East vs West, Poor vs. Rich, is it national power-brokering or religious jihad?
Hotel Mumbai necessarily skirts around such issues as it just presents what happened within the perimeters of a thriller. It doesn’t make it a bad film, but it does leave it a strangely frustrating, albeit riveting film that likely could have been something more.