Hotel Mumbai, 2019.
Directed by Anthony Maras.
Starring Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Isaacs, Anupam Kher, Amandeep Singh, Suhail Nayyar, Kapil Kumar Netra, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Sachin Joab, Rodney Afif, Zenia Starr, Rohan Mirchandaney, Alex Pinder, and Pawan Singh.
The true story of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel terrorist attack in Mumbai. Hotel staff risk their lives to keep everyone safe as people make unthinkable sacrifices to protect themselves and their families.
It’s not long before Hotel Mumbai (an uncomfortably realistic reenactment of the 2008 terrorist attacks on India, specifically against the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel conducted by jihadist extremists) introduces a prominent white character. In this case, that person is a traveling architect named David (played by Armie Hammer with bravery and heroism) visiting alongside his Middle Eastern wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, who in more ways than one is the real heart of the film), and their infant child, all accompanied by their nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). Now, I could not tell you if any of these people are real, but research tells me there are many composite characters so I’m going to assume that this is one way to dramatize the senseless slaughtering for a mainstream audience seeking frighteningly legitimate thrills. Admittedly, it instantly rubbed me the wrong way.
You don’t need famous Caucasian celebrities to make audiences care about this tragedy considering it’s already a harrowing experience that already stars relatively known Indian actor Dev Patel as Arjun, a Taj Mahal restaurant waiter struggling to make ends meet providing for his pregnant wife and sick child who still throws caution to the wind to save lives, including the ones of those that are prejudiced and immediately speculate he is in cahoots with the attackers. Similarly, we don’t need vacationing Australians in thankless roles to further boost an ill-advised white lives matter quota (although in this case, their inclusion is likely a returned favor for Australia putting together the Taj Mahal set to re-create the terrorism). It also doesn’t help that Hotel Mumbai is relentless with death and constantly upping the body count. So many innocent Indian lives taken by radicalized Islamic terrorists under the promise of Allah’s favor and riches for their families, to the point where the effect feels manipulative more than anything.
After about an hour of this going on (all with me questioning if this movie really needs to exist, especially when you factor in the frequency at which terrorism still unfortunately occurs) the jihadists (there are about four of them inside the hotel) begin searching for hostages, predominantly white and American. And while it still doesn’t explain the need for popular Hollywood stars such as Armie Hammer completely (yes, the safety of his family gives audiences something meaningful to cling onto as a cliché done with the wrong characters, regardless of its powerful execution boasting segments where a nanny muffles a sick baby’s screaming to keep quiet and remain undetected), the creative decision from director Anthony Maras (he also pulls double duty as a co-writer alongside John Collee) eventually reveals smartness. In a movie where any character without a hint of white is mercilessly being gunned down in brutal fashion, white privilege sticks out, even if their chance at survival is still up in the air.
It’s just a shame it takes so long to get there. Not surprisingly, when Hotel Mumbai is fixated on Arjun and the lower class restaurant staff, most of which who throw away an easy escape to help save lives, there is biting suspense, and again, it’s beneficial to the film that I feel like I’m spending time with characters I feel like I should care about more in the context of the narrative. There is a moment where Arjun explains the symbolic nature of his turban, soon after finding himself forced to remove it in order to use it as a bandage to stop the bleeding on a civilian, and aside from being emotionally hefty on its own, the sensation of nationalities uniting to survive against a common enemy hits hard. Dev Patel is generally terrific, whether he finds himself trapped in a CCTV room unavailable to provide further assistance or putting himself in danger to protect others. That’s not to say Armie Hammer is bad, he does great work with what he is given but is never able to rise above serving as a reason to make white audiences contemplate purchasing a ticket.
As horrific as these terrorists are, from a storytelling standpoint it’s more enjoyable to spend time with them then wealthy white hostages (Jason Isaacs also plays a sleazy Russian that grows on you as he begins to show courage). Communicating with an unknown identity known as The Bull, at one point one of the jihadists is ordered to feel the inside of a woman’s bra for some potential hidden cash, to which he refuses. It would be wrong to say that Hotel Mumbai shows these monsters humanity, but it allows us a window into their thought processes, which is a worthwhile aspect if you believe the line of thinking that we can defeat monsters by first understanding them. These are people that repeatedly shoot down innocent civilians without batting an eye, yet are deathly afraid to feel up a woman (to clarify, this is obviously not something I condone but is a heinous act that pales in comparison to mass murdering) or swallow some pork. They are merely sentient beings with no humanity operating under rules that disturbingly make no sense. There is also a moving scene with them and Zahra to further drive home this dynamic, and it’s arguably the best scene in the movie, containing powerful work from Nazanin Boniadi.
Briefly, it also feels worth touching on that Mumbai had no special forces division for their police. Actual useful help was hours away, with the standard police force carrying basic weapons no match for the automatic weapons and grenades the jihadists had in plenty. Now, I don’t know if the film was trying to say something, or how Mumbai reacted following these events, but it does seem somewhat mind-blowing to not have some kind of elite squad designated for high threat level situations such as this. In an age where people seem to think disarming American police is a good idea because of a few rotten apples, terrorist incidents seem to be a good a reason as any not to do something so overdramatic.
Anyway, if you’re going to force someone to sit through a body count that rivals the numbers of an entry in the John Wick series but without the glamorization and joy that comes from action thrills, dive into the minds behind these unfathomable killings. To be fair, Hotel Mumbai does just enough, but it’s an uneasy feeling watching an Indian Die Hard prioritizing Armie Hammer during a real-life tragedy presented with no pulled punches. Faults aside, it does work as a remarkable story of heroism and civilian bravery showcasing thoughtful racial commentary and insight to these terrorists. Even without those things, it would be hard to deny the craft and intensity on display. Just because you want to look away doesn’t mean there are no reasons to admire why you feel compelled to do so.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com