Real life tragedies are often mined for films that can educate the public at large on incidents that aren't always commonly discussed. In the case of the Taj Hotel attack in 2008, Hotel Mumbai is the film to take on the task of depicting the terrorist incident in a cinematic, but reverent manner. The film succeeds on both fronts, acting as an intense examination of both the victims who suffered through the event, and the perpetrators who carried it out in the name of their supposed holy quest.
Taking place during the attack that started on November 26, 2008, Hotel Mumbai shows the struggles of the staff (Dev Patel, Anupam Kher) and guests (Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, Jason Issacs) occupying the building as it was laid siege to by teenage soldiers. That day would see a coordinated attack on 12 locations throughout Mumbai, with the Taj representing the centerpiece of this film's examination. As time ticks by, and the situation grows more dire, those trapped in the hotel have to rely on their cunning, as well as their humanity, to survive.
Co-writer/director Anthony Maras has crafted a stunning, if not standard portrait of a terrorist disaster in Hotel Mumbai. In execution, this feels like a film we've seen before, with both sides laid out clearly before letting the jarring attacks take place to set the tone for the rest of the film. It's not a sin for a film such as this to follow a pattern, but it would have been nice to have a little more of a unique spin on things to be present.
In light of that criticism, what Hotel Mumbai lacks in originality it more than makes up for with its even handed portrayal of the struggles that both the guests and the staff endured in the Taj Hotel. Rather than shifting the focus of the narrative to the guests or the staff for the majority of the film's running time, both groups are shown pretty equally and fairly in the story being told. This allows for the entire cast to show off their impressive performances as an effective ensemble, as well as individual performers of distinction. In particular, the heroics of the hotel's staff are shown through Dev Patel and Anupam Kher's members of the kitchen staff, who stay behind to help aid the guests in their survival. Meanwhile, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi, and Jason Issacs do exemplary jobs of portraying the non-local civilians pinned in the conflict. All involved aren't action heroes or saints, they're just people trying to survive for those they care for. So their heroics are more true to life rather than sensationalized.
While Hotel Mumbai is reverent to the event it depicts, there are still some notes that are a little on the nose. In particular, there's a mini-arc throughout the film that sees Nazanin Boniadi and Jason Issacs' characters go from polar opposites to partners in crisis that feels just a little too pat. But again, Boniadi and Issacs' portrayals of their composite characters keep the proceedings from turning too saccharine, balancing those notes with the intensity of the carnage that is also on display during Hotel Mumbai.
As a biopic, Hotel Mumbai doesn't distance itself too far from the norm, and that's alright. What's more important to the film, and what plays to its strengths, is the fact that it focuses on an event that isn't talked about as often as other noteworthy global events. It also does so in a fashion that doesn't bog itself down too much in the attack itself, but rather focuses on the people that lived through it, and their heroic actions in the name of communal survival. This does come at a cost, though, as a little more background into the conflict at large would have been a good move, so as to inform audiences not as familiar with this subject matter the chance to better access the film's story.
If you're interested in seeing Hotel Mumbai, just keep in mind that the film works best as a meditation on the resilience of the human spirit during a time of crisis. Those seeking a history lesson will have to look elsewhere - with the best option probably being the documentary that inspired the movie. Audience members who are looking for an affirmation of humanity's better angels, while depicting some of their worst, will definitely be satisfied with Hotel Mumbai.
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