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On Russia-Georgia Border, Caught In ’5 Days Of War’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 18, 2011

Drawing on both his action-flick chops and his family background, Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin battles his way back from straight-to-video purgatory with 5 Days of War. The low-budget movie, set during Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, is neither innovative nor profound, but it is kinetic, visceral and sometimes moving.

The story is largely based on eyewitness accounts collected by Human Rights Watch, and is best when it stays close to these anecdotes. Children and the elderly are callously targeted in the sort of wartime atrocities that have become something of a specialty for screenwriter Mikko Alanne. Alanne — like Harlin, a Finn — also wrote Pinkville, Oliver Stone’s upcoming film about the My Lai massacre.

Yet amid the contemporary horrors, 5 Days of War finds room for some classic-Hollywood developments, inventing an improbable battlefield romance and a moment where an implacable enemy calls a personal truce. Also conspicuously old-fashioned are the several symbolic appearances of St. George, Georgia’s namesake and the patron saint of evil-battlers.

After a traumatic prologue set in Iraq, another of 2008′s least inviting locales, the movie trails five war correspondents to Georgia. The best-known actor in the bunch is Val Kilmer, but he’s a minor player. The central characters are reporter Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and his camera-toting colleague Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle). Anders, who has already experienced plenty of loss, is soon smitten with Tatia Medoevi (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a pretty young teacher he attempts to safeguard after her sister’s wedding turns as bloody as Harlin’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4.

Aside from protecting Tatia and her family, Thomas’ priority is finding an outlet for Ganz’s video of summary executions and other war crimes. But the Beijing Olympics have just begun, and most of the major Western news outlets are not interested.

The Russians and their local allies, independence-seeking Ossetians, don’t share CNN’s indifference. Col. Demidov (Rade Serbedzija) desperately wants the memory card containing the video footage, and much of the plot involves games of keep-away with the tiny card. The worst of Demidov’s troops is a ruthless terminator who calls himself a “Cossack” and might as well be a cyborg. Yet several times a Russian shows compassion for Georgian noncombatants.

That’s not enough to make a balanced account. The movie focuses on Georgian suffering, and provides neither a larger context nor scenes in which Georgians butcher Ossetians (as they reportedly have). That’s partially because the story is narrowly focused, but also because the filmmakers’ sympathies are clearly with Georgia.

The movie was conceived and financed by Georgian businessmen, and received substantial assistance from the Georgian military. Growing up in Russia-wary Finland, Harlin heard first-person stories of his country’s 1939-40 Winter War with the Soviet Union. The director even cast Andy Garcia, a Cuban exile who directed the anti-Castro The Lost City to play Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

In other words, the movie has an agenda. Two, in fact: Calling attention to Georgia’s 2008 plight, and making that calamity into a gripping if conventional adventure movie, with jerky pans, quick cuts and a score that shifts between mournful classical-style piano and agitated hard-rock guitar.

Ultimately, Harlin’s Hollywood training upstages his Finnish outrage. He has admitted to being unable to stage scenes as gruesome as real-life video of the war he’s seen, but the movie’s atrocity scenes are harrowing enough to make the point. 5 Days of War is not the definitive comment on the Russia-Georgia conflict, but it does bring the war part of the way home. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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