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Daze of War: The Russia-Georgia Conflict on Film

5 Days of War
a film by Renny Harlin (Anchor Bay, USA, 2011)

The new film 5 Days of War, which purports to recount the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, opens with an epigraph attributed to the American politician Hiram Warren Johnson: “The first casualty of war is truth.” It’s a strange way to begin a movie whose propagandistic qualities are at times cringe-worthy. Though director Renny Harlin has insisted that his movie “was not a one-sided thing,” even the most diehard Georgian nationalist would not dispute that it conveys the Georgian view of the conflict. There’s nothing inherently wrong with politicized cinema, but opening the film with Johnson’s famous adage is a sort of Freudian slip, saying as much about 5 Days of War itself as it does about those who disagree with its simplistic premise of Russian belligerence and Georgian victimization. 

In an action-packed two hours, 5 Days of War follows the adventures of a group of foreign correspondents covering the “little war that shook the world,” as the former US State Department official Ronald Asmus titled his book about the brief conflagration at the feet of the Caucasus mountains. Erupting in the shadow of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, the war had its roots in a nearly twenty-year-old dispute between Georgia and its powerful neighbor about the status of two breakaway Georgian territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, over which Georgia exercised de jure, but not de facto, control. Russia, which continues to have “peacekeepers” in both regions, long supported their secessionist aspirations, arming paramilitaries, and distributing Russian passports, in violation of international law, to ethnic Abkhazians
and Ossetians. 

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The film opens in Iraq, when insurgents ambush a jeep carrying television journalist Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend). Though his girlfriend Miriam (Heather Graham, in a cameo performance) dies in the ensuing firefight, Anders is miraculously rescued by a squad of coalition soldiers from Georgia. A deadly gun battle in Mesopotamia might seem a strange way to begin a movie about a conflict in the Caucasus, but it’s a crucial element in establishing the film’s narrative, not at all inaccurate, of a small, post-Soviet country attempting to ingratiate itself with the West, America in particular. Under the presidency of Columbia University–educated Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia launched vigorous bids for membership in the EU and NATO, and has contributed troops to the missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Fast-forward to the summer of 2008, when Anders gets a phone call from his photojournalist friend Dutchman (a bloated Val Kilmer), the archetypical hard-drinking, hard-living “shooter” that appears in every war-correspondent film. Tensions are building in the breakaway regions and war may soon break out. Anders should get over his grief and get back in the game. He takes the first flight to Tbilisi, and what follows is a thrilling depiction of the short war (replete with frantic car chases, tattooed, knife-wielding Cossack-like thugs, and countless near-death escapes), which destroyed one of the central assumptions of post–Cold War Europe: that the continent’s borders would never again be changed by force. Early in the course of their travels, Anders et al.
witness a massacre of Georgian civilians, and the remainder of the film consists of their death-defying struggle to get the footage out to the world. The travails of Anders and his colleagues on the front are interspersed with heated scenes of Saakashvili (a passionate Andy Garcia) in the presidential palace, in which the Georgian leader complains to his advisers of the West’s spinelessness in the face of Russian aggression.  

5 Days of War follows two Russian attempts at dramatizing the conflict, the documentary War 08.08.08: The Art of Betrayal, which posits that American mercenaries assisted Georgia in committing genocide against South Ossetians, and Olympus Inferno, the fictional account of an American scientist studying butterflies who inadvertently videotapes Georgian atrocities. 5 Days of War is Georgia’s unofficial response to this propaganda assault. Though Harlin (whose previous films include Die Hard 2 and Deep Blue Sea), denies that it helped finance the film (which was privately funded by a member of the Georgian Parliament and a government minister), Tbilisi did make in-kind contributions in the form of tanks, helicopters, and soldiers, and gave the filmmakers free access to an abandoned military base and the president’s office. This is unfortunate, because what could have been a decent movie about the conflict has been hampered by the Georgian government’s pursuit of its own interests.

 

The obfuscation begins with the depiction of the war’s outbreak, represented in the film as an indiscriminate Russian attack on a festive Georgian wedding ceremony. (The film is best in its portrayal of Georgian culture and its loving cinematography of the beautiful Georgian landscape. A casual reference to former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, and a character clearly based on Saakashvili’s American-born adviser Daniel Kunin—played by Dean Cain—will also delight Georgia buffs.) While it’s true that the Russian military did indeed fire indiscriminately on Georgian targets in South Ossetia and Georgia proper, it was actually Georgia which fired first, with its shelling of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. An EU report on the conflict, considered to be the definitive account of the war’s origins, found that “none of the explanations given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some sort of legal justification for the attack lend it a valid explanation.” While a reporter is heard ending a live dispatch with the caveat that “both sides have a dramatically different account of this escalation,” this point is utterly lost amidst the earlier scenes of splattered limbs flying across the screen as Russian helicopter gunships fire on a wedding party.

What follows this attack is a harrowing, often cartoonish, depiction of Russian and Russian-sanctioned barbarity. While international human rights groups and the European Union concluded that both sides committed abuses against civilians, it is only Russian atrocities that viewers see, most of them carried out by a sadistic Russian mercenary, who shoots the legs of an elderly woman and orders the throat-slitting of Georgian men with abandon. In one scene, he lovingly displays a set of torture instruments to a captured journalist in a scene that’s part Hostel, part Marathon Man. In passing, we see Georgian men being lined up against a wall for summary execution. 

5 Days of War is even more Manichean in its portrayal of Russians than Red Dawn, the 1984 Patrick Swayze action flick imagining a Soviet invasion of the United States. But the latter film was fiction; 5 Days of War presents itself as docudrama—that is, the dramatization of an actual event as seen through the eyes of characters that, while imagined, provide an accessible way for viewers to understand history. While the genre allows for some embellishment, films claiming to be based on actual events should remain as faithful as possible to the actual events. And not content with distorting the wartime behavior of both sides, Harlin uses actual Georgian survivors of the war for purposes of emotional blackmail. Right before the credits roll, a series of people who lost loved ones in the conflict provide moving testimonials of their trauma. 

 

To be sure, 5 Days of War is a movie—an action movie, at that—and not a scholarly analysis of the Russian-Georgian war and the events leading up to it. Films need their villains and heroes, and Harlin provides both in black and white. It would be impossible to do justice to the complexity of the conflict and the antagonism that has long existed between Georgians and ethnic Ossetians and Abkhazians in a two-hour movie. But many films have dramatized real-life events that are just as fraught as this one, and they have done a far better job of doing their subjects justice. There’s no reason why 5 Days of War could have not been more nuanced. The closest, and only time, that Harlin comes to depicting any sort of humanity among the Russians is in the person of a general, who, having cornered Anders and a contingent of Georgian soldiers in the city of Gori (incidentally, Stalin’s birthplace), lets them escape.

A more truthful film, taking into account the complicated circumstances surrounding the outbreak of fighting, as well as abuses committed by both sides, probably would have made the Georgian case even stronger. Such a movie might not have satisfied its Georgian backers, as it would not have portrayed Georgia as morally pristine and Russia as irredeemably evil. But it would have at least provided viewers with an accurate enough picture of the situation so that they might nonetheless have come to the conclusion that, while both countries took imprudent steps making all-out war inevitable, it is Russia that is most at fault. And that’s because the facts are mostly on Georgia’s side: Moscow’s interests in Georgia are largely motivated by post-imperial resentment and not humanitarian concern for the well-being of Abkhazians and Ossetians; its recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian “independence” is in violation of international law, as is its building permanent military bases in both territories; and it continues to station troops on sovereign Georgian land in violation of an EU ceasefire. 

What we have instead is a movie so cartoonish in its portrayal of bad guys versus good that most people who see it will throw up their hands and assume that both sides are equally to blame. An ostensibly pro-Georgian film that unwittingly assists Vladimir Putin’s propaganda offensive, 5 Days of War shows that Hiram Johnson might have been on to something.

James Kirchick is a contributing editor of the New Republic based in Prague.

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