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Watching The Movies: Hotel Mumbai

The best new movie you never heard of

Sometimes the most riveting stories are the ones from real life. True tales of courage and survival can sometimes rival anything that Hollywood screenwriters can cook up. That’s the case with Hotel Mumbai, the new thriller based on the real-life terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai in November 2008.

Hotel Mumbai was lost in the shuffle between the pro-life drama, Unplanned, the horror movie, Us, and a bevy of superhero flicks. Until I started looking for a movie to see, I hadn’t even heard of Hotel Mumbai.

The movie is the gripping tale of how 10 Islamic terrorists from Pakistan attacked 12 sites in the Indian city of Mumbai. The terrorists eventually penetrated the luxury hotel and terrorized the staff and guests until Indian security forces were able to respond. The terrorist assault lasted three days, during which time the occupants of the hotel were forced to fend for themselves.

The movie follows several guests, staff members, policemen, and the terrorists through the attack. For the most part, the gunmen are depicted as remorseless killing machines who are repeatedly instructed by their leader in Pakistan that they should kill without mercy. And kill they did. The combined death toll from the attacks was 166 people with more than 300 wounded.

Although the terrorists were heartless and were depicted as such, there are scenes towards the end of the movie in which one of the murderers breaks the façade to reveal that some traces of humanity have been left. The effect is to humanize the murderers enough for the viewer to fully sense the tragedy that these men too left behind lives that could have been lived more fully and had loved ones to mourn their loss. In the end, the real villain was the unseen imam who turned what a policeman called “just boys” into brainwashed killing machines.

To balance the cold, calculated brutality of the terrorists, Hotel Mumbai depicts the hotel workers and guests who fought to survive. There are moments of courage, nobility, and love as well as fear, cowardice, and stupidity. These are the understandable reactions of ordinary people who are suddenly faced with extraordinary evil.

The movie, which is rated R, is fast-paced and gritty. There is almost nonstop violence and it is depicted in a realistically bloody manner. This is not a movie for children or the faint of heart. The movie is also filmed in several languages so there are subtitles. The majority of the dialogue is English, however, so the reading is not unduly burdensome.

It did keep my heart pounding, however. The action onscreen was riveting and the characters, aside from the terrorists, were very sympathetic. What made the movie even more intense was the knowledge that this really happened to real people. Hotel Mumbai is somewhat reminiscent of No Escape, the 2015 Owen Wilson movie in which an American family is caught in the midst of a third-world coup, but the historical aspects of Mumbai make it worth watching, even if you’ve seen the earlier terrorists-in-a-hotel film.

As I watched, Hotel Mumbai also reminded me of how fortunate we are in the United States. We have occasional active-shooter killing sprees but we don’t have organized terror attacks by well-trained gunmen acting in teams. In the event that there is an attack of some sort, we also have police tactical units in most major cities. In Mumbai, the nearest SWAT team had to be deployed from Delhi, about eight hours away. Despite the problems that we have on our border, our neighboring countries aren’t filled with people of a hostile religion who want to kill us just for the sake of killing.

Nevertheless, the threat is real, even here. As a frequent traveler, the thought of being trapped in a hotel room with gun-toting terrorists roaming the halls and no way out is chilling. So is the thought that any airport, train station, or shopping mall could become a shooting gallery to a determined terrorist. If spree-killers can inflict large numbers of deaths in this country, so could a jihadist. The spree might not continue for three days but it would be very bloody and very difficult to defend against.

Hotel Mumbai is the best new movie that you never heard of. It doesn’t have big name actors, superheroes, mind-numbing special effects, or exotic fight scenes. It’s just ordinary people doing extraordinary things. This true story of survival and sacrifice against unflinching evil is one that needs to be told.

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