Dev Patel plays a Sikh waiter who desperately needs a paycheck. Photograph from Arclight Films
Culture Movies

Review: ‘Hotel Mumbai’ is riveting and relentlessly suspenseful—but what is it saying?

After sitting through a little over two hours of nail-biting tension, this re-enactment of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai fails to drive home a point
Andrew Paredes | Mar 29 2019

Directed by Anthony Maras

Starring Armie Hammer, Dev Patel, Nazanin Boniadi

One of 9/11’s effects on pop culture is the seismic shift in Hollywood’s approach to terrorism. After American intelligence was exposed for the porous apparatus it was, gone were the jingoistic Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis fantasies where heroes handled foreign aggression with only their tank tops soiled, not their psyches. In a world where nobody was safe and the threat hid in shadows, they were replaced by ambiguous and unsettling morality tales where the adversaries and their motivations were given equal prominence as the heroes—from Steven Spielberg’s Munich to Paul Greengrass’ United 93 to Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky.

Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi are newlyweds who leave their baby with a nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) before they go to a dinner. Photograph from Arclight Films

What those examples have in common are not just gripping narratives, but a strong viewpoint. And you would rightly be tempted to add first-time feature director Anthony Maras’ riveting Hotel Mumbai to the list, a re-enactment of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks in which 12 separate locations in the city were targeted by the Pakistan-based terror organization Lashkar-e-Taiba. The operation culminated in the siege of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where the bulk of the film’s action takes place. Make no mistake: the suspense is relentless and the scenes of mayhem are expertly staged, but after sitting through a little over two hours of nail-biting tension, the question Hotel Mumbai leaves you with is, What is the film trying to say?

 

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The first third of Hotel Mumbai has a messy sprawl to it, as the film gathers the terrorists (there were 10 in real life, but the need for narrative economy has the film focusing on around six) and their future victims for their fateful rendezvous. Hotel Mumbai makes an effort to humanize their anxious, young jihadists by showing them in constant contact with a mysterious entity known as “the Bull”, who feeds them incendiary messages of social inequity as the film’s visuals juxtapose the city’s squalor with upper-echelon luxury and expat obliviousness. The terror spree kicks off at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station (a sequence of the terrorists suiting up in their assault weapon finery in a men’s room, then walking past an old man collecting the washroom fee before the hail of gunfire is reflected on the room’s tiles, should be mentioned for its subtle brilliance).

The film then shifts its POV to the victims, who are mostly white. From the train station, it is on to the Café Leopold, where the camera latches on to an Aussie backpacker (Angus McLaren) and his Asian companion (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) as they frantically stagger away from the gunfire and carnage, and run to the Taj Mahal Hotel, where around four of the terrorists infiltrate the premises posing as terrified sanctuary seekers.

For a film as technically proficient yet harrowing as Hotel Mumbai, is putting you in the shoes of terrified victims enough? Photograph from Arclight Films

Maras and co-screenwriter John Collee based their script on hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors and witnesses, but it is interesting to note that most of their big-name stars play fictionalized composites. Dev Patel plays a Sikh waiter who desperately needs a paycheck, Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi are newlyweds with a nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) tending to their baby upstairs while they go to dinner at a lobby restaurant, Jason Isaacs is a Russian setting up an orgy at his suite—all have a vague air of archetype to them. But the only actual real-life person I could identify out of the ensemble, Anupam Kher’s head chef Hemant Oberoi is even worse off, with the heroic staffers who stayed alongside him to care for their besieged guests barely even getting a shading of characterization.

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Hotel Mumbai is amazingly photographed and art-directed. Director of photography Nick Remy Matthews’ desaturated tones and production designer Steven Jones-Evans’ meticulously recreated sets blend with actual news footage so seamlessly it’s hard to tell where the news ends and the dramatization begins. And as in United 93, the terrorists are given an odd moment of humanity here and there. But it all adds up to you asking what would you do if you were confronted with such extreme circumstances.

Which leads to a follow-up question: For a film as technically proficient yet harrowing as Hotel Mumbai, is putting you in the shoes of terrified victims enough?

Munich says the quest for vengeance makes vigilantes no better than perpetrators; United 93 believes there is grace in confronting one’s mortality. But Hotel Mumbai arrives at a point where the terrorism feels like an Irwin Allen disaster spectacle. It offers no insight, only a Towering Inferno for the age of jihad.