The fact-based thriller Hotel Mumbai (★★★) opens in a tense register that rarely lapses. From the first baleful notes of score playing under images of a golden morning dawning over Mumbai, to the explosive standoff that concludes this vivid chronicle of the November 2008 terrorist attacks throughout the city, the film maintains an atmosphere of almost palpable fear and foreboding.
Its occasional lapses into Hollywood-style hokum can puncture the otherwise airtight pacing, but they’re not enough to topple this impressive feature directing debut by Anthony Maras, who also co-wrote the script and co-edited. Maras seems to be aiming for some combination of the stark docudrama storytelling of Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and an Irwin Allen disaster pic, in the vein of The Towering Inferno. The combo works best when it favors the nuance and character-building of the former, rather than the rote heroics that come with the latter.
There’s intrigue and illuminating detail in practically every moment, quiet or suspenseful, that the movie spends in the company of the terrorists who launch the highly-coordinated and highly-armed attacks on a dozen targets, including the five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Forgoing any effort to explain their faith or their actions, the film does humanize these men enough to convey how some foul indoctrination has rendered them cruelly indifferent to the lives and humanity of their victims.
And, while so many lives were taken violently during the horrifying four-day siege, Hotel Mumbai focuses on the guests and staff at the Taj. Following a smooth setup that introduces Dev Patel as hard-working family man Arjun, a server in the Taj’s restaurant, Anupam Kher as his tough but caring boss, the head chef Oberoi, and Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as a wealthy guest couple, David and Zahra, the movie tracks suspenseful action across a half dozen disparate storylines.
Kher is a standout, conveying Oberoi’s decency and sense of confident command before and during the attacks, and Patel makes quite the credible action hero as Arjun consistently overcomes his own fear to step up in the struggle for survival. But the film falters with the David and Zahra thread, a glaringly clichéd collection of big-strong-man-to-the-rescue moments.
It’s not just patronizing that David grasps his wife’s face and tells her, “I need you to be strong,” before he runs off to save their nanny and baby, trapped upstairs. But since she carried that baby and pushed it out of her body, telling her to be strong just sounds like bad writing.
Surely not every woman caught up in this terrifying siege just cowered in a corner waiting for the nearest man to tell her what to do next, but alas, that’s how this film plays it. Fortunately, Boniadi’s performance as Zahra makes it clear that, with or without her husband mansplaining grace under pressure, she’d figure out how to keep her cool in a crisis, even one as unfathomably frightening as this one.
Hotel Mumbai is rated R, and is now playing at Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c.