In 2008, the world turned its back as Russia declared war on the neighboring region of Georgia. For five days, the vastly superior Russian forces descended on destitute Georgian villages, separating families, causing massive property damage and driving a fractured country into further disrepair, of which the area has yet to recover. For all intents and purposes, Renny Harlin’s “5 Days Of War” should not exist. And yet it does, not only as a war picture that emphasizes the ugliness of this conflict, but as a document of a dark moment in world politics, when women and children were under the gun in front of the world’s closed eyes.
“5 Days Of War” examines events through the eyes of an American journalist, Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend). Anders has no stake in the political situation in Georgia, but is reluctant to return to the battlefield after losing a lover while on assignment in Iraq. Encouraged by a wily British cameraman (Richard Coyle) and an embedded gonzo reporter (Val Kilmer, well-fed), he embarks just as tensions are escalating, and soon finds himself dodging exploding rubble alongside a beautiful local girl (Emmanuelle Chiriqui) and a rogue Georgian soldier (Johnathon Schaech).
Most of Anders’ journey is told through the filmic vocabulary of an action movie. Tragic loss of former lover, check. Comic-relief sidekick (Coyle), check. Militaristic ally always at the right place in the right time (Schaech), check. Wild-haired recurring enemy (Rade Serbedzija), check. And, of course, pretty girl love interest (Chiriqui), check. With a few dialogue alterations and a location change, Anders is a bit of Martin Riggs, a little John McClane, and, whilst dodging explosions and gunfire in search of the truth, something of a superhero. Harlin, who has previously directed “Cliffhanger” and “Die Hard 2: Die Harder,” is right at home.
“5 Days Of War,” often viscerally violent, remains an intriguing sampling of nationalist cinema, financed in part by a Georgian government fund. It takes great pains to portray the people of Georgia as a nation of proud citizens with traditions and a culture worth protecting, many of whom refuse to flee even after the sight of tanks on the horizon. As the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the somewhat-questionably cast Andy Garcia, is otherwise dignified and true as a beleaguered leader frustrated at the lack of awareness on the part of allied governments, particularly America. Though sequestered from the action in his executive offices, Garcia effectively carries the weight of an entire nation as he scoffs at the too-late meetings held by the European Union to resolve the conflict.
Harlin’s film is so bracingly pro-Georgia, of course, for a purpose. In 2008, this conflict was barely acknowledged by the press, a fact driven home by Anders’ quixotic quest to find a media outlet that will air the footage they’ve procured in battle. On the first night of savage Russian attacks, more eyeballs are fixed on the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The kind reading is that most would prefer to see nations come together rather than tear each other apart. The more accurate one is that corporate interests kowtow to idle minds who shrink from a greater awareness of the horrors of international conflicts. Anders and his cohorts eventually end up dodging mortar fire in order to find a place to upload their footage. Whether that footage will ever be aired is a question that hangs over their near-death escapes.
So this remains the struggle of the medium. What is the cost of sexing up the Russo-Georgian War? Action clichés abound, as when Anders walks away from an exploding building in slow motion, or when a character is saved by a last-minute bullet-to-the-head to their enemy from an unlikely off-camera source. In ways, this distorts the suffering and bloodshed that occurred on those days, where several did not have the benefit of having the cash our reporters employ, or the aide of an impossibly dashing soldier like Schaech.
Beyond commercial considerations, however, one has to acknowledge not so much an allegiance to the truth as much as a devotion to not only the people of Georgia, roundly ignored at the time of these conflicts (the percentage of Americas that could find Georgia on a map is likely shameful), but of the few journalists who were embedded. Were they doing so out of glory or personal gain? Irrelevant, as they ducked through the carnage in order to push this story through to the world’s uninformed. To claim that Harlin is misinterpreting the conflict is to misunderstand both the film itself as well as Harlin.
This is why “5 Days Of War” has to be acknowledged for having its own specific vocabulary. The events of that war merit sensationalizing not only because they’ve been under-contextualized, but because they’re the reflections of an auteur’s interpretation. Harlin, and other contemporaries of his ilk like John McTiernan and Jan De Bont, have escaped respectability by being pigeonholed into the same big budget action templates over and over again, and here, Harlin shows that it’s not his skills that eroded, leading to “The Covenant” and pallid “Die Hard” ripoff “12 Rounds,” but rather his interest level. Like Lee Tamahori, he of the recent “The Devil’s Double,” Harlin had to venture overseas to find producers who trusted him with volatile material. “Five Days Of War” thusly showcases a director who has sharpened his tools to the point where they no longer require the wink and nudge of films like “Cliffhanger” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight.”
There’s a ceiling to this type of film, the massive international production with multiple financiers, seemingly-arbitrary casts (Dean Cain’s presence completely confounds), and an emphasis of thrills over character – Friend’s Anders is little more than a tortured action cipher, denying us the foothold into the struggle we wouldn’t have otherwise. But as a tribute to the people of Georgia and the journalists who aided them, “5 Days of War” is certainly vital with Harlin’s notable gifts used in service of a story not of survival, or violence, but of preservation. “5 Days Of War” ends with a brief montage of real-life survivors of the conflict discussing their lost loved ones, acknowledging that if you print the legend, the fact will emerge as well, just as long as something is printed. [B]