Our culture’s morbid fascination with tragedy is nothing new. From true crime podcasts to the media’s coverage of mass shootings, the film industry’s absorption of real life disaster is an expected phenomenon. But in a society in which people with guns terrorizing other people veers horrifically into the rule, as opposed to the exception, you might begin to question whether any fictional account could ever really be worth it.
Hotel Mumbai, Anthony Maras’ brutal and exhilarating interpretation of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, is a satisfying ensemble story that focuses on the acts of heroism that ensured the safety of so many potential victims. It is absolutely relentless in its depiction of violent and systematic slaughter, meaning none of the polite concessions that would grant immunity to the film’s heroes or the most innocent members of society (children, senior citizens), come into play. “That’s simply how it went down!” is the obvious retort to objections of the film’s untempered violence.
The film opens to the arrival of the four gunmen, a team of young Pakistanis who swiftly make their way to the nearest subway station to initiate the first of several attacks on the city. What’s most frightening about the crew is how seamlessly they seem to blend in, like young hostel travellers with their hiking backpacks and duffels, only theirs are filled with military-grade machinery. Their ability to switch easily into the appearance of civilians is what gives them access to the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel as they inconspicuously filter into the swarm of innocents running from the location of the last attack. Rather than portray the terrorists as one-dimensional villains, which might otherwise seem propagandistic considering the open hostilities between Pakistan and India, Maras and co-writer John Collee judiciously add some humanizing touches that contextualize the gunmen’s desperation. While blood is still very much on their hands, it’s evident that their minds were susceptible to behind-the-scenes manipulation by forces much greater than them.
Meanwhile, the hotel guests and workers scramble around in packs or on their own in search of loved ones and hiding spots within the massive, labyrinthine hotel. Because local police lack the weaponry capable of confronting the terrorists’ advanced arsenal, a siege is held off till forces from far-off New Delhi arrive over ten hours after the hotel is taken hostage. Guests and workers are left to fend for themselves overnight, and as the gunmen exhaustively search the premises, their fates are more often than not determined by luck and good timing. There’s Arjun (an excellent Dev Patel), an astute server with a son and pregnant wife at home; the elegant Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) and her strapping American husband David (Nazanin Boniadi) who have arrived that same day on their honeymoon with their nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), and their infant baby. Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin) plays Russian billionaire Vasili, perhaps the only scenery-chewing character in the film, and consequently an odd, but welcome source of relief.
As a lover of slasher films, I’m not necessarily interested in the need to justify a film’s excessive violence. It’s only when such justification comes with the pretense of “honoring” or “memorializing” a true event, that the ugliness of the Hollywood machine comes to light. As a disaster flick, Hotel Mumbai is a compelling watch. Washington Post critic Michael O’Sullivan rightfully compares it to the The Towering Inferno (1974), which also dramatizes the sensational collapse of a glamorous institution, and weaves together various survival threads from its elite guests and working class employees.
But it’s 2019, meaning the faulty electrical wiring of a newly erected architectural marvel speaks less to the the times than a terrorist attack, which is of course, the imminent danger that defines our 21st century experience. Taken apart, Hotel Mumbai hits many of the right notes – convincing performances, visceral action, and thoughtful writing – and yet, perhaps by no fault of its own, there’s something undeniably off-putting about what it so effectively recreates. Unfortunately, the flaw was written into the film before it even started shooting.