I’m the same writer who was troubled about the scene from Hotel Rwanda regarding Paul’s discussion with his wife. I was completely satisfied with your response to the question I asked and now find I can watch the film without worrying. I noticed in your review of the film Children of Men you objected to the euthanasia scene presented as a “loving and merciful choice.” Would you be able to explain the difference between these two scenes, and why you consider one characters moral calculus to be understandable, if not acceptable, while the other is gravely objectionable?
Good question. Admittedly, the difference between the two may be a fuzzy one, not a hard, clear moral distinction.
That said, in my judgment Children of Men romanticizes and sentimentalizes the euthanizing of a mentally incapacitated loved one in a way that Hotel Rwanda does not similarly endorse the proposal of suicidal acts as a desperate escape from extreme duress.
Paul’s proposal in Hotel Rwanda that his family leap from the roof rather than fall into the hands of raping, genocidal assailants is meant to make us shudder — not necessarily because we disagree with his judgment, but because of the magnitude of the two great evils he is trying to choose between. Jasper in Children of Men tenderly poisoning his wife to the sad, sweet strains of Franco Battiato’s cover of “Ruby Tuesday” is meant to break our hearts, but I think the film asks the audience to approve this concrete, onscreen act in a way that Hotel Rwanda doesn’t ask us to approve Paul’s unrealized contingency plan.
Note that while Jasper kills his wife only as government forces close in and he expects to die covering for the escaping heroes, there is no reason to think that heinous crimes would then have been committed against his catatonic wife, as would have been committed against Paul’s family. Perhaps she would merely have been institutionalized, or perhaps she would have been euthanized by the government. Either way, it’s not clear that he is motivated by a desire to save her from a “fate worse than death.” Perhaps he simply feels that there is no point in her going on after he is dead, or that if she is going to die anyway it should be by his hand.
It may also be worth noting that the scene in Hotel Rwanda merely reflects the actual choices of real people (I checked), rather than any particular bias or interest of the filmmakers. By contrast, the scene in Children of Men was added to P. D. James’ fictional story by the filmmakers, so it seems to reflect something that the filmmakers specifically wanted to say. This redactional (editorial) consideration doesn’t directly affect the narrative significance of either scene, but it does say something about the filmmakers’ motivations, which goes to the larger critical meaning of the scenes.
Finally, I’ve been thinking about the roof-jumping business, and on reflection I’m not sure that a case couldn’t be made from the moral principle of double effect that to jump off a roof to escape murderous attackers may actually be morally justifiable. While it would not be morally licit to seek death as a means of preventing oneself from being able to suffer at the hands of others, it could be argued that the purpose of leaping off the roof is not to die, either as a means or as an end, but rather to place oneself (physically, not existentially) beyond the grasp of the assailants on the roof. That leaping off the roof results in falling to one’s death would be a foreseen but unwilled consequence of the physical leap away from one’s assailants.
Even if one doesn’t accept this line of thought, the earlier considerations still seem to me to make the Children of Men scene problematic in a way that the Hotel Rwanda scene isn’t. Incidentally, this isn’t to say that I don’t understand Jasper’s decision and have human sympathy for him. I even sympathize with Clint Eastwood’s character’s climactic decision in Million Dollar Baby. Nevertheless, I deplore the way that film manipulates events and audience sympathies in order to elicit approval for a reprehensible decision.