BY NANCY R. MANDELL
If “The first casualty of war is truth,” as the introduction to “5 Days of War” asserts in a quote from Sen. Hiram Johnson (Rep.-Calif., 1918), the second might be ‘Love at first sight.’ Director Renny Harlin would have been better off recognizing that before watering down his otherwise effective action film about the five-day Russo-Georgian War that took place almost under international radar in August of 2008.
At the heart of “5 Days” are the efforts of Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend), an American war correspondent and Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle), his British photographer, to protect their footage of atrocities committed on unarmed Georgian citizens by the Russians and to get the video aired on a US network.
Filmed in Georgia with military equipment and personnel lent by the Georgian army, the movie is crammed with scenes of bombings, battles and crossfire, all of which our protagonists manage to barely escape. In an opening scene set one year earlier in Iraq Anders and Ganz survive crossfire that blows up their press vehicle and takes the life of Anders’ journalist girlfriend Miriam (Heather Graham). This flashback is supposed to account for Anders’ now somber personality—making him something of a wet blanket in the company of irreverent colleagues and drinking buddies like Val Kilmer who seems to be having a ball as “The (rowdy) Dutchman.” Alas, it also makes him susceptible to Tatia, a pretty, US -educated Georgian schoolteacher (Emmanuelle Chriqui) who becomes his not-quite-credible love interest in a sidebar romance that only mucks up some very well orchestrated action and should have waited for a screenplay of its own. It’s a bit unlikely, for instance, that the pair would exchange fateful first glances while the Russians bomb the picturesque village wedding of Tatia’s sister.
From time to time, the camera shifts to the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi where Cuban-born Andy Garcia adopts a fairly convincing Balkan accent to play Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a post-cold war leader who is trying to align his state with the West. The screenplay, by Mikko Alanne and David Battle, presents Saakashvili as reluctant to engage the Russians, who are occupying two southern provinces, against the advice of his ministers, one of whom is played by American actor Dean Cain.
While there is some question as to how much of the production was financed by the Georgian government (or in a private capacity, by members of it), there is no doubt that we’re witnessing the brief, brutally bloody conflict from the Georgian perspective. It’s a justifiable bias given that in the Iraqi opening scene, Anders and Ganz were saved by a Georgian unit in Iraq. Less justifiable is their coincidental reunion with the commander (Jonathon Schaech) while they are under fire in South Ossetia. The plot is further simplified by the fact that they encounter only one real villain among the Russians—the evil, tattoo-covered Danil (Mikko Nousiainen), whose actions are the subject of the memory stick that puts the journalists in such danger. Can you believe that Danil’s primary mission is to track down the two journalists who, he can only surmise, caught his incriminating acts on tape?
The Russo-Georgian conflict coincided with the opening of the Beijing Olympics, filling our TV screens and front pages with spectacle, sport and exotic scenery. Our home-grown ignorance of Soviet politics may account for its success at turning a war movie into a thriller—despite the clichéd romance and the stereotyped heroes and villain. In any case, the real crime in “5 Days” has as much to do with journalistic ethics as it does with politics. Like Anders and Ganz, we become determined to get that film picked up by US television and shown to the world—determined, to echo Sen. Hiram Smith that truth will not become a casualty of war.
“5 Days of War” opened Aug. 19 at The Angelika Film Center, 18 West Houston Street, New York City