Another year, another Rwanda movie: This time it’s “Shake Hands With the Devil,” director Roger Spottiswoode’s dramatization of United Nations Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire’s eyewitness account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. But whereas Dallaire’s tome bristled with rage against the Western powers that turned a blind eye to the African nation, Spottiswoode’s lackluster film fails to offer any fresh perspective on these now well-known events. Excepting the Sept. 28 theatrical rollout in Canada — where Dallaire and actor Roy Dupuis are household names — pic looks to be a smallscreen attraction.
If the film feels especially unnecessary, it’s because Dallaire’s story was already brought to the screen a scant three years ago, in the form of Peter Raymont’s excellent documentary, also called “Shake Hands with the Devil,” which followed Dallaire on his journey back to Rwanda for the 10th anniversary of the genocide. (The same year, a thinly fictionalized version of Dallaire appeared in the form of Nick Nolte in the Oscar-nominated “Hotel Rwanda.”)
That said, Spottiswoode, whose superb 1983 pic “Under Fire” took place in Nicaragua in the days leading up to the Sandinista revolution, certainly seems like a logical choice to helm a dramatic version of Dallaire’s story. And Dupuis, who bears a striking physical resemblance to the real Dallaire, would appear to be perfect casting. Yet, “Shake Hands with the Devil” fails on both counts, with Spottiswoode’s sluggish pacing and screenwriter Michael Donovan’s didactic, on-the-nose dialogue (“It’s extermination, like the Jews!”) giving the pic the embalmed quality of a second-tier movie-of-the-week.
Dupuis, meanwhile, is too much self-confident swagger and too little agonized inner conflict — even when he has been rendered powerless by his UN superiors — to sync up with the Dallaire we have come to know through his many outspoken public appearances.
Told in flashback and framed by the clunky device of having Dallaire relate his story to a psychiatrist, “Shake Hands” trudges dutifully through the key events that set the stage for 100 days of ethnic cleansing by insurgent Hutus against Rwanda’s Tutsi minority: the death of then-president Juvenal Habyarimana in a mysterious plane crash; the propaganda spewed by the virulently anti-Tutsi Radio Rwanda; the extradition of (mostly white) foreign nationals by governments (including the U.S. and France) that otherwise make no efforts to intervene in the chaos; and the ill-advised decision of the UN to send Belgian peacekeepers into a nation rife with anti-colonial sentiment stemming from its years under Belgian rule.
But throughout, there is little sense of Dallaire’s escalating rage, even when, in an astonishing blunder, the UN prohibits him from raiding a large weapons storehouse, the loss of which might have put a significant crimp in the militant Hutus’ assault. Pic also makes virtually no mention of Dallaire’s personal life or the family he has left behind in Canada. In a strictly objective sense, however, Spottiswoode deserves credit for making a film that emphasizes the death and destruction of Rwanda, rather than those incongruous stories of triumph and survival (a la “Hotel Rwanda”).
Doing the pic no favors is Deborah Kara Unger as one of those bleeding-heart American reporters who seems to have been recruited from third-world-crisis central casting: The vibrant journos who populated “Under Fire” wouldn’t have given her the time of day. Tech credits are strictly serviceable, with actual location shooting in Rwanda not nearly as vividly deployed here as in Raoul Peck’s “Sometimes in April,” still arguably the best fiction feature to emerge on this subject.
Opening credits attribute a nebulous “story editor” citation to “Havana” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” scribe Judith Rascoe.