Similar to what Paul Greengrass accomplished with 2010’s Green Zone, 5 Days of War represents a merger of fact and fiction; weaving facets of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war into a predominantly fictional story about journalists caught in the crossfire. Finnish director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) took the director’s chair here, and attempted to capture the intricacy and political complexity behind this forgotten conflict that was largely overlooked by Western media. Alas, Harlin’s primary focus was on fictional story elements, resulting in a passable action-thriller diversion but a wasted opportunity which over-simplifies the historical record. While a technologically sound low-budget war movie, it had the potential — and the right creative team — to be something far more.
For the uneducated, a war broke out in August of 2008 between Georgia and the Russians. At the time, though, the world was uninterested because the 2008 Beijing Olympics were unfolding. With Georgia being invaded and suffering tremendous civilian casualties, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili reached out to the Americans and other countries only to be turned down. The skirmish which ensued ultimately caught the attention of Renny Harlin, who in turn set out to preserve the story on the medium of film. Having grown up in the shadow of the Soviet Empire, Harlin has said that he understood the tensions and complicated issues surrounding the relationship between Georgia and Russia, making him well-suited for the job. Even if he was unable to nail all of the political ins and outs of the war, Harlin’s expertise in large-scale action was an asset in the creation of 5 Days of War.
In the picture’s harrowing opening moments, journalist Thomas Anders (Friend), his cameraman friend Sebastian Ganz (Coyle) and other journalists are attempting to cover the Iraq War in 2007, but become caught up in a lethal shootout. The immediacy and sheer realism of this sequence is unsettling, truly giving you the sense that you are there. Anders and Ganz are rescued by Georgian coalition forces, and afterwards they head to the region of South Ossetia upon hearing of a brewing conflict. Once again, though, the pair find themselves caught in the crossfire, with an air raid bombarding the local area. Ending up with young girl Tatia (Chriqui) and other assorted locals, the journalists witness and film a barbaric execution by the Russian soldiers, and subsequently find themselves battling against Russian forces in the hope of getting the news out to the entire world.
While based on true events, 5 Days of War contains blatant fictional elements which stick out like a sore thumb, including Hollywood-style split-second timing and other contrived scenarios that damage the film’s integrity. It’s also disappointing to report that we never get the full sense of the scope of the skirmish, and more context is desperately needed (opening titles akin to the beginning of Black Hawk Down would have been beneficial). For a film which visibly aimed to spread awareness of what happened in 2008, 5 Days of War does very little to illuminate the circumstances and political motivations that led to the war. Not to mention, political dialogue is generally reduced to short, exceedingly cheesy sound bites. To the credit of Harlin and writers Mikko Alanne and David Battle, though, the central characters are well fleshed-out, and for the most part they feel like living, breathing, flesh-and-blood individuals whose fates are easy to care about. However, the Russians get the short end of the stick in this respect; they are portrayed as brutish villains lacking in both characterization and motivation. Then again, it would probably be boring to give the Russian villains any depth. Ah well. Whatever.
Perhaps unsurprisingly considering Harlin’s filmography, 5 Days of War squeezes every tired, well-worn war movie trope of bravery, courage and stirring speeches for everything that they’re worth, on top of adopting action movie clichés such as self-sacrifice and trite “Go without me” exchanges. It’s all very standard-order, and the stuff in between the action often lacks energy, so it is relieving to report that the film at least comes alive during the action scenes. For a $12 million feature, the terrific production values are to be admired. Also, this is a vehemently old-school action/war movie that’s mercilessly low on ostentatious CGI. (If digital effects were used to a large degree, they are perfectly seamless.) With practical blood effects, impressive aerial photography and exhilarating action scenes, Harlin’s efforts suggest a much higher budget than the figure his team were allotted. Not to mention, unlike most blockbusters which contain incomprehensible action, the set-pieces were perfectly filmed to allow you to clearly comprehend the combat. The film’s only technical drawback is Trevor Rabin’s generic, unmemorable score.
In the role of Anders, Rupert Friend is a real find. A British actor recently glimpsed in such films as Outlaw and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Friend is an engaging screen presence. Alongside him, Richard Coyle is affable and at times suitably intense as Sebastian. Coyle perhaps remains best known for his beloved role in the BBC sitcom Coupling, yet he is well on his way to a big-time acting career outside of the comedy series if he keeps maintaining this performance standard. Alas, the rest of the cast ranges from middling to outright boring — Val Kilmer is astonishingly underused and forgettable as another journalist, while Emmanuelle Chriqui’s Tatia is simply flavorless. Also on hand is Mikko Nousiainen as a typical cookie-cutter villain. Even Heather Graham appears oh-so-briefly to little effect and little impact. At least Andy Garcia is to be admired for his portrayal of President Saakashvili, espousing a believable accent and filling his lines with passion.
As with any war movie, 5 Days of War has sparked controversy due to its rather one-sided viewpoint of the conflict. Then again, the same can be said for all war movies. Even if the movie is too black & white and does an inadequate job of explaining the politics, it is refreshing to see a war movie which is not concerned with portraying the American army saving the day. In fact, the U.S. military were not involved in this particular conflict at all. A bolder, more historically accurate retelling would have been far more welcome than what is presented here, but for what 5 Days of War is (a fictional action film within a non-fictional setting), it is hard to not appreciate what’s been done here on some level.