Hotel Mumbai is a docu-drama that recreates the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, with a particular focus on the siege of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. It is technically a very good movie. It is very well made, tightly written by John Collee and Anthony Maras, who also directs. Maras delivers a raw, searing tension in the tone and journalistic accuracy in the staging, which makes you feel like you are in the middle of the siege along with the hundreds of trapped staff and guests of the hotel. The acting is solid all the way through, the cast led by Dev Patel as sympathetic and terrified waiter Arjun (a composite of several Taj staffers). The score by Volker Bertelmann is particularly good. There are no real complaints to be made about Hotel Mumbai as a piece of filmmaking. I just have one very big question: What is the purpose of this movie, and others like it?
What is to be gained from morbidly faithful recreations of mass casualty events? What do we learn from watching a recreation of hundreds of people being mowed down in seconds in a train station? What can a fictionalization impart to us that a documentary, or even just watching a YouTube compilation of real-time phone calls, can’t? We keep making movies like this—United 93, 22 July, and now Hotel Mumbai—and I don’t know what we’re supposed to get from any of it. I don’t need a two-hour snuff film to tell me that a terrorist attack is scary. I’ve seen the news. That sh-t IS scary. And I don’t need a fictionalization emphasizing that Everyone Has A Family to make me sympathetic for the victims and survivors. If you’re even a halfway decent person, you have that sympathy without prompting. So why did I spend two hours strung out and sad, watching people die over and over again? What is the point of this exercise?
One thing Hotel Mumbai does is depict the sheer randomness of the event. Go, stay, hide, flee—none of it matters. There is nothing anyone can do to determine their fate. It’s just random chance. In that way, Hotel Mumbai functions as a kind of rebuttal to the Marky Marks of the world who have delusions of grandeur that they could do something to stop a terrorist attack. No, you can’t. If Hotel Mumbai accomplishes anything, it is to prove that there is no “right” decision in a situation like this. Smart characters die. Panicked characters die. Obedient characters die. People trying to be brave, people running away, doesn’t matter, they die. The guy who looks most like a traditional action hero, who is on a quest to Save His Family, dies. Survival is pure chance, luck of the draw.
But do we need to make obsessively detailed recreations of terrorist attacks to learn that lesson? Do we NEED Hotel Mumbai? I sat through this whole movie, ruined an entire day because it’s f-cking sad and upsetting, and I still don’t know why. Why is a documentary not enough? Why do we have to re-enact it? The argument I’ve heard is that the movie honors the survivors and victims, but The Tower, a documentary about the 1966 clocktower shooting at the University of Texas, does a great job honoring the victims and survivors, so I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think we need dramatizations of terrorist attacks to grasp what happened or honor those who went through it. Yet we keep making these movies. We make them with frightening accuracy and gory detail. Why? What are we doing?