Monday, August 15, 2011

5 Days of War: While the World Looked the Other Way

In early August, 2008, the Russian military invaded the free and democratic country of Georgia, leaving death and destruction in their wake. They are still there, occupying the so-called breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a fact the media has yet to notice. Indeed, the journalistic establishment did its best to look the other way, except for a hardy band of foreign correspondents who risked life and limb to cover the Russian atrocities. Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin (yes, that Renny Harlin) dramatizes Georgia’s struggle to preserve its sovereign integrity through their lenses in 5 Days of War (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was elected President as a Western-oriented reformer, the exact opposite of Russian PM Vladimir Putin. So committed to strengthening relations with America and NATO, Georgia contributed military forces to Operation Iraqi Freedom. For war reporter Thomas Anders, it is a good thing they did. As 5 Days opens, Capt. Rezo Avaliani’s unit arrives just in the nick of time to save him from a terrorist ambush, creating a bond of friendship between the two men. As Russia starts massing troops on the border, the psychologically wounded Anders heads back into the field, where he will encounter the good Captain again.

President Saakashvili and his American advisor scramble to rally world support, but the media is not interested. When CNN bothers to cover the story (yes, the network is mentioned by name), they only present the Russian government’s spin. Even more frustrating, legitimate journalist on the ground, like Anders and his hard drinking colleague Laurens “Dutchman” Roemer, are not able to place their dramatic stories of Russian war crimes (unflinchingly illustrated throughout the film), because their outlets simply do not care. Unfortunately, the Olympics will soon start, crowding beleaguered Georgia out of the media spotlight.

It will come as a shock to many that Renny Harlin had such a serious and timely film in him. Yet, it is important to remember the Cliffhanger director’s Finnish roots. Indeed, Saakashvili explicitly references Finland’s resistance to Soviet invaders in his climatic address to the nation. The director clearly has a passion for the story, but his action movie roots also serve the material quite well.

Frankly, it is a bit of a misnomer to call 5 Days a war film, because it was never a fair fight. However, Harlin and cinematographer Checco Varese (a former news cameraman who saw action in Bosnia and Chechnya) convey a vivid sense of what it is like to have the Soviet Russian war machine bearing down on you. It is a scarily convincing sensation, never really captured on film so effectively before.

A surprisingly good physical match for Saakashvili, Andy Garcia invests the film with real dignity and gravitas. In fact, his delivery of the President’s stirring national address might just get you a little choked up. Indeed, the Georgian characters are all quite credible and compelling, particularly Johnathon Schaech as the resourceful Capt. Avaliani.

Shrewdly, Val Kilmer plays to his new degenerate out-of-shape image as the cynical Dutchman. Rade Sherbedgia, Kilmer’s former co-star from The Saint, notches another memorable heavy role, playing Col. Demidov with more nuance than the Russians deserve. If there is a weak spot in the cast it is Rupert Friend, who only digs into his character just so far, in between dodging bullets and getting the stuffing kicked out of him. Still, he is serviceable enough to keep the film on track and firing on all cylinders.

Tightly helmed by Harlin, 5 Days is absolutely riveting as cinema when considered only according to strict formalist criteria, but of course there is much more to take into account. One suspects it was originally conceived with an even darker slap-in-the-face ending. Regardless, the final film is blisteringly angry and honest. Yet, it is also inspiring, depicting a small scrappy Eastern European nation standing up against a vastly more powerful aggressor, championing the values we advocate. Conversely, for nearly everyone working for a major media outlet, the film is a long cold glass of shame. One of the year’s best, 5 Days opens this Friday (8/19) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.