The war correspondent is given pride of place as the unsung hero of modern warfare in Renny Harlin’s 5 Days of War, a fictionalised drama set during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Aiming to entertain as much as edify, Harlin (Die Hard 2) follows the example Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone and Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond by using Hollywood heroism to shed damming, albeit biased, light on a contemporary conflict.
From the onset, 5 Days of War is clear about its agenda as a paean to the noble principles of journalism, which in light of the recent News of the World phone hacking scandal, are values worth reinforcing. The film also unabashedly sympathises with Georgia, a nation depicted — largely correctly, in this reviewer’s opinion — as the unfortunate victim of a revitalised Russia playing a ruthless game of geopolitical brinksmanship.
Events take place during August 2008, a month I suspect most of us spent glued to TV sets broadcasting the Beijing Olympics. With all eyes on China, a resurgent Russia seized the opportunity to invade and occupy the geopolitically significant provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two former Georgian territories that have since fought for autonomy. Although both sides have been criticised by the international community for their rash involvement in the war – particularly for their disregard of humanitarian law – it was Russia who received much of the flak from the West. The US, for instance, defended Georgia by saying they were bullied into conflict by their burly neighbour, a stance both Harlin and screenwriters Mikko Alanne and David Battle have clearly adopted.
Against the backdrop of this conflict, 5 Days of War tells the heavily fictionalised story of Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend; The Kid), a seasoned American war correspondent who regularly risks his life to report from the battlefield. Along with his cameraman Sebastian (Richard Coyle; Prince of Persia) and a young local woman Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui; Entourage), Thomas endeavours to uncover and report on Russia’s atrocities during the five-day war. A few recognisable faces join them on their quest, including Val Kilmer (Batman Forever) as the archetypal maverick journalist Dutchman and Germany’s Antje Traue (Pandorum) as photographer Zoe. Finally, a little Hollywood weight is added by Andy Garcia as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who struggles to keep control of his country in the face of a powerful enemy. What transpires is a compelling tale of war heroics that, refreshingly, is told from a journalist’s perspective rather than a soldier’s.
It must be stressed that 5 Days of War is neither a documentary nor a docudrama. Despite the actuality of certain events, the story is extremely Hollywood in construct, told with all the usual twists and tropes one might expect from the director of films like Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2. Regardless, Harlin demonstrates surprising finesse behind the camera, crafting a film with impeccable pacing, tense action, solid performances and powerful themes. Even with a modest budget of $12 million, the film’s production values are sound, particularly the backdrop of war which has been recreated with an impressive sense of scale and detail. Trevor Rabin, the composer of films such as Remember the Titans and National Treasure, completes the film with a soaring, vivacious score that hits all the right emotional queues.
In a strange way, Andy Garcia’s delivers the most stirring performance as President Saakashvili. The film depicts Saakashvili as a passionate leader and noble statesman, who does his best to hold things together during a number of strikingly romanticised scenes. Yet given the facts of just how helpless Georgia was, and remains, in the face of Russian belligerence, those very same moments start to feel more tragic than they do cheesy. In reality, the Georgian President was a flawed but earnest man naive enough to put his faith in a weak and indecisive West, thus allowing his nation to be used as an unfortunate pawn in a larger geopolitical game that was rigged from the start.
To conclude, the horrors of war are skilfully captured in all their blunt brutality in 5 Days of War, an engaging and provocative account of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. But despite Renny Harlin’s proficiency as a storyteller, his film is unapologetically slanted and sentimental, which is likely to leave the uninformed moviegoer confused as to where the line between fact and fiction lines. Nonetheless, the drama is satisfying and the message is pertinent, making 5 Days of War a worthy alternative to all the mindlessness on offer this blockbuster season.