Who’s to blame for popularizing reenactments of real-life terrorist attacks? Should we point the finger at “United 93” director Paul Greengrass, or maybe Steven Spielberg’s morally gray “Munich” a year earlier? The entire genre traces back to Gillo Pontecorvo’s game-changing “The Battle of Algiers” in 1966, which challenged our ideas of on-screen realism by posing as a cinema vérité newsreel. Even so, such re-creations didn’t become chic until after 9/11, when action movies in which folks such as Sean Connery and Arnold Schwarzenegger saved the day from terrorist plots gave way to those in which successful attacks became the focus.
There’s little doubt that “Hotel Mumbai” director Anthony Maras has seen all these movies and then some, although what’s not so clear is why he felt compelled to tell the story of the 2008 Mumbai attacks — a series of 12 separate terror incidents that culminated in the bloody siege on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where the bulk of the film takes place, and where stars such as Armie Hammer and Dev Patel mix with unknowns to portray how real people reacted to those events. Sitting through the harrowing events again nearly a decade later could hardly be described as entertainment, and the film plays to many of the same unseemly impulses that make disaster movies so compelling, exploiting the tragedy of the situation for spectacle’s sake. Here, Maras’ intent seems to be a chance for audiences to consider that universal question: “What would you do if you found yourself in the same situation?”
Based on hundreds of hours of firsthand research by Maras and co-writer John Collee, who interviewed survivors and witnesses of the three-day ordeal, “Hotel Mumbai” aims to present a reliable image of what actually happened during that period when 10 members of Islamic terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba turned the Indian metropolis into a scene of panic and confusion. And yet, as someone who lived in New York on the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks and in Paris during the 11/13 Bataclan shooting, I can attest that it captures very little of either — not the normal human response, as adrenaline takes over rational thinking under such intense circumstances, nor the scariest feeling of all: that even in the era of instant Twitter updates and pervasive news coverage, it’s impossible to know what’s going on beyond your immediate experience when something like this happens. You may hear sirens in the distance, but is that a sign that help is on the way or indications of a fresh attack somewhere else in town? (As it happens, the same siege was the subject of another film, Nicolas Saada’s “Taj Mahal,” told from the perspective of a terrified French teenager trapped in one of the rooms — and while that movie isn’t nearly as technically accomplished, it does more closely approximate the experience of being there, cut off from the kind of information that could save your life.)
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That’s not to say “Hotel Mumbai” isn’t impressive or gripping. As debut features go, it’s a formidable achievement, delivering on the promise shown by Maras’ harrowing 2011 short “The Palace,” which earned him two Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards — and the chance to make this movie. Depicting the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus from the p.o.v. of characters hiding in cupboards, “The Palace” was good practice for the way Maras approaches the attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel 30-odd years later.
As in Greengrass’ “United 93,” the film opens by introducing (and in some way humanizing) the nervous young jihadists preparing to carry out the strikes for which they have been trained by someone known only as “the Bull” back in Pakistan, before shifting its focus to the predominantly white collection of characters caught in the mayhem. Maras follows a pair of gunmen into a restroom of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station, where they load their weapons before opening fire on the crowded public space (we see only their escape, as news reports describe the carnage), kicking off the terror spree. Some time later, at the Café Leopold not far from the Taj Hotel, Australian tourists are sorting the bill when another terrorist tosses a bomb into the building, opening fire on the survivors.
These scenes are worse than nearly anything one can imagine in a horror movie, not just because they actually happened but for the way they open the door to an entirely new kind of nightmare: For those visiting Mumbai that late November day, there was no reason to think anything like this was possible, but the truth is, it could happen anywhere.
Still, the first third of the movie feels especially disorganized, juggling the introduction and arrival of many characters (absurdly enough, it starts to feel like a cross between “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Clue”) with the outbreak of violence. As the movie goes on, the many narrative strands seem to converge, taking excellent advantage of the spaces Maras’ production design team so meticulously dressed to suggest the Taj hotel (exteriors are the real deal, embellished by CGI).
Stunningly framed and photographed, then later desaturated to give things the cool, neutral feel Maras wanted, DP Nick Remy Matthews’ outstanding footage sometimes clashes with the melodrama it contains. Or perhaps it’s the weirdly uneven performances, delivered in a nine languages, that don’t fit the film’s visual striking aesthetic. It can’t help that Maras likes to intermix the most terrifying details with absurdist humor, as when the four Islamist gunmen, apparently unfazed by murdering infidels, are confronted with doing things that challenge their beliefs, like reaching into a woman’s shirt, or accidentally eating haram canapés containing pork.
In depicting the characters’ behavior, what ethical obligation does Maras have to be accurate to the events of that night, or is it enough to channel the spirit of everyone’s behavior? For example, what do we make of Hammer’s character, a traditional “white savior” type who leaves his place of safety to check in on the infant son (and his nanny) that he’d left upstairs but later jeopardizes both of their lives? Why give him such a prominent role when so many of the Indian characters — the exceptions being Patel’s Arjun, a kitchen worker who’s also worried about his wife and child, and Anupam Kher, who plays master chef Hemant Oberoi — are reduced to just a scene or two?
But “Hotel Mumbai” doesn’t subscribe to traditional notions of heroism, providing no one even remotely action star-like to stand up to the gunmen. The puny local police squad appear clumsy and completely out of their depth, posing little threat to the terrorists. It took Indian Special Forces many hours to arrive on the scene, during which time, hotel guests and staff were repeatedly forced to decide between the most immediate impulse for survival (several employees take the opportunity to protect themselves and go home) and the far more selfless choice of risking their lives in hopes of saving others. Whatever else it may offer to audiences — vicarious thrills, emotional catharsis — “Hotel Mumbai” serves as a testament to those remarkable individuals.