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Hotel Mumbai is a riveting, based-on-true-events action movie that maybe shouldn’t have been made

The film raises ethical questions about turning a real terrorist attack into a thriller

hotel mumbai - dev patel
Dev Patel as Arjun in Hotel Mumbai.
Mark Rogers/Bleecker Street

Last summer, David Byrne ended his American Utopia concert at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, New York, with an encore cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a song which lists African-Americans who died from police encounters (Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo) or racially motivated attacks (Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till). The lyrics couldn’t be simpler: the name of the deceased, and the demand to say their name. Standing in the front row, it was powerful, cathartic stuff. I remembered the stories of the people who died and, to my embarrassment, learned some new ones. This felt to me a respectful and righteous way to remember a tragedy.

Watching Hotel Mumbai, a new film dramatizing the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, had a quite different effect. Instead of being part of something proactive, I felt pummeled and abused. Or, as a colleague said to me as the film concluded, “Christ, I need an Advil.”

Hotel Mumbai, like United 93 before it, takes a real incident of recent terrorism and dramatizes it for maximum uncomfortableness. The film stars Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Isaacs, and Anupam Kher, and all but Kher, as celebrated chef Hemant Oberoi, play composite characters. Over the course of the film you grow to care deeply for each of them (and others) as they cower in fear, realize the reality of their situation, and strategize how to stay alive during an attack. As in classic disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure, some survive and some don’t — and you’ll never be able to guess who. Unlike in classic disaster movies, what we’re watching actually happened.

Nazanin Boniadi and Jason Isaacs in Hotel Mumbai
Nazanin Boniadi as Zahra and Jason Isaacs as Vasili in Hotel Mumbai.
Mark Rogers/Bleecker Street

On Nov. 26, 2008, a team of terrorists raided Mumbai in targeted attacks. Over 160 people were killed, with hundreds more injured. The armed men hit a train station, a hospital, a movie theater, a Jewish community center, a college, and a café. They also attacked luxury hotels, the most famous of which was the Taj Mahal Palace.

The goal was a centralized siege ready-made for television broadcast, with hundreds of hostages, many of them Western. The story of the random cruelty of the killings, and how some survived — through their wits, through bravery, through dumb luck — is extraordinary. The locale is perfectly suited for a movie: a gorgeous hotel (“it’s paradise!” one of the young terrorists, who comes from an impoverished background, says upon entering) with easily understood geography. This is part of what makes Die Hard so rewatchable. But this isn’t Die Hard. This is ripped from the headlines.

It is important to know the story. It is important to honor the dead. (“Say their name!”) But the filmmaking style in Hotel Mumbai raises difficult questions. The movie is well-made. The action sequences, as directed by Anthony Maras, would click in a Bond film if they went easier on the blood squibs. In a handful of scenes, we see gorgeous men and women scurry about the handsomely decorated rooms of the overtaken hotel. Over and over, our characters try to break free; a gunman leaps out; brains splash on the marble floor; the survivors retreat and look for a new approach.

The violence in Hotel Mumbai must be brutal to be true, but Maras hammers action-adventure movie beats with a shoot-’em-up visual grammar (e.g., lots of strafing moves). French filmmaker François Truffaut famously said there was no such thing as an anti-war film. Most interpret this to mean that the inherent voyeuristic nature of cinema carries a vicarious thrill that can’t be erased. Even though Hotel Mumbai grossed me the hell out, I was, as the cliché goes, at the edge of my seat, entertained.

The gun brutality is unobscured. Bodies flop all over the place. People weep and beg for their lives. The scene that struck me most saw the terrorists holding receptionists at gunpoint, forcing them to call up to terrified room occupants who are aware of the siege and in hiding. They are told that the police are coming, and to open the door when they hear a knock. Of course, this is someone with a machine gun systematically mowing down survivors. When one receptionist refuses to make more calls, a gunman callously blows her away and the next weeping woman is dragged over.

The scene is dramatic, but ... holy shit. What are the ethical implications of sitting in a darkened theater and watching this? It is one thing to read a detailed newspaper account, but can there be a way to tell this story in a manner that doesn’t toy with these people? Can there be a movie that “works” that doesn’t make entertainment out of the dead?

Making things worse, it’s unlikely that anyone can watch Hotel Mumbai without a recent incident looming over the screening, considering how much brutal gun violence there is in the world. The studio could delay the release in the wake of the Christchurch, New Zealand, attack (and a much smaller one in Utrecht, Netherlands), but the chances are just as good that something dreadful will happen a few weeks from now.

Censorship of the arts is one of the surest routes to destroying a free society. (It is, to dig up a hackneyed-but-apt phrase, “what the terrorists want.”) There’s not a bone in my body that wants to be schoolmarmish and tsk-tsk the makers of Hotel Mumbai. I’d never make demands of them. But there’s something I will ask: What exactly does a movie like this hope I’ll feel after two hours of nerve-wracking viciousness?

Hotel Mumbai shatters the shell of decency with its undoubtedly well-meaning attempt to find protein-rich sustenance. (That’s the most belabored metaphor you’ll ever read, but I’m still somewhat rattled by the violence in this movie — cut me some slack.) When you get to the scenes of the police chief flying in like a hero before the reinforcements arrive, Maras leans hard on Hollywood movie tropes. Though I never saw Paul Greengrass’ United 93 or 22 July, I saw his early film Bloody Sunday, and the extreme cinema verité style offers a counterargument to some accusations of exploitation. It’s very hard to make that case with Hotel Mumbai, even as it entertains.

Hotel Mumbai is out now in limited release, before expanding nationwide on March 29.

Jordan Hoffman is a writer and member of the New York Film Critics Circle. His work can be read in The Guardian, New York Daily News, Vanity Fair, Thrillist, and elsewhere.