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The worry regarding certain movies that recreate real-life nightmares is that the filmmaker sees the incident as a form of action-adventure tourism, a way to fake an experience so that genuine tragedy is reduced to an adrenaline boost. But the prevailing feeling watching Australian director Anthony Maras’ feature debut “Hotel Mumbai” is of heart-in-the-throat panic as it places us inside the Indian capital’s storied Taj Mahal Palace Hotel when it was besieged by a well-armed militia of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists on a citywide killing spree in November 2008.
The distinction — the thriller that terrifies, as opposed to the terror that thrills — is an important one when choosing to watch the unfolding of the worst situation imaginable, realizing that only some of the hostages you get to know are going to survive. (Of the 174 people killed throughout Mumbai, 31 died at the Taj over the three days.) In this age of regular mass shootings, when fear of being numbed to the steady drumbeat of such news might be as worrisome to our well-being as assuming that no place is safe anymore, any movie that sweats bullets to vividly portray what real bullets do is in its way a kind of grim act of artistic service to our violence-saturated culture.
The Paul Greengrass method of researched, you-are-there immediacy (“United 93” especially) filmmaking seems to have been an inspiration, since Maras and co-screenwriter John Collee (“Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World”) based their film on extensive interviews and time spent at the Taj. But they’re also not above time-tested disaster movie devices for threading in heart and tension: composite characters of varying nationalities and class representing the hotel’s breadth of clientele and employee; we’re-in-this-together dialogue intended to stir us; and cross-cut suspense set pieces (keep the baby from crying, the last-minute cell phone call, the killer’s around the corner) with the distinctive aroma of screenwriting invention, not reportage.
These contrivances shouldn’t work, but somehow they do, probably because the general air of hellishness never dissipates in Nick Remy Matthews’ lived-in cinematography and Peter McNulty and Maras’ white-knuckle editing, so whenever old Hollywood intrudes, it’s a mostly welcome distraction.
The movie’s most serene images are arguably its earliest, when a boat coasts into a fishing village under a hazy sun carrying 10 grunge-attired Pakistanis with heavy bags, and a voice in their earpieces calmly assuring them “Paradise awaits.” At the same time, we meet kind-eyed Sikh husband and father Arjun (Dev Patel) as he readies himself for work at the Taj as a waiter in the chic restaurant of star chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher, “New Amsterdam”), a benevolent taskmaster who likes to remind his staff that the hotel’s motto is “Guest is God.”
Personifying that hand-and-foot treatment are arriving A-list guests David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, “Counterpart”), wealthy marrieds who bring with them a newborn and a nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, “52 Tuesdays”). Also checking in that day is a Russian playboy billionaire (Jason Isaacs) whose vibe I’m willing to bet was described in the script as “mysterious.”
Maras sets the stage for his no-frills depiction of violence with the gunmen’s initial attacks at a train station and a restaurant. The way two members of the group slip into the Taj makes for a chilling reveal. When the jihadists soon take over the Taj, driven by the drumbeat of class hatred from “Brother Bull” in their ear and shooting anything or anyone that moves, guests and staff are forced into hiding wherever they are. In a private VIP clubroom, chef Oberoi and Arjun take charge of the utensil-brandishing cooks and waiters who are willing to protect the guests they’ve herded there at all costs, while they wait for special forces to arrive from locations hours away.
As the situation intensifies, one of the movie’s strengths emerges in the depiction of the homicidal extremists prowling the hotel; they aren’t mere faceless villains or cookie-cutter baddies. Maras’ methodical depiction of their behavior — calm when killing, crying when wounded, crafty one second, feverish the next — adds an unsettling depth to the movie’s portrait of young religious fanaticism. They’re simultaneously real and zombified. There are even strange attempts at humor in their naiveté, like one murderous zealot’s sudden skittishness at searching under a dead woman’s shirt. You may not laugh, but these pinpricks of humanity oddly never seem out of place.
Couple that with Maras’ refusal to turn any of his besieged characters into a standout action hero, preferring a range of survival choices from ill-advised and pointless to risky and brave, and you have what amounts to a resonant dramatization of our terrorist problem at large: one side is shallow and unrelenting, the other is scared and hardly unified about what to do. It grounds “Hotel Mumbai” in the human, even as it fractures our senses with gunfire, bombs, and blood. Maybe the best thing I can say about “Hotel Mumbai” is that I kept waiting for it to become “Die Hard,” and it thankfully never did.