This movie was highly promising. There are some good pros in the cast, whose performances and parts we’ll get to. The director, Renny Harlin from Finland, is an ace at making low-budget actioners, and not bad at high-budget ones like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger – movies that aren’t especially believable, for any longer than it takes to exit the theater, but are pure joy whilst inside. Moreover, as a movie about real events — the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, with ethnic cleansing carried out under Russian guns by nominally-independent ethnic militias — it’s potentially applicable to current events in Ukraine, where nominally-independent ethnic militias operate under Russian direction and command, with a view to similar ethnic cleansing.
For this reason, we moved it up in our review queue.
Notice we said, “highly promising,” not “frickin’ awesome.” That’s because the movie is also a propaganda film so one-sided as to be disturbing. Harlin had extensive Georgian cooperation in filming 5 Days of War (a movie also available under other names). The Georgian Army provided both the Georgian and Russian forces for the film; the Georgian Ministry of Culture may have financed it (the then-minister has a producer credit); which should raise your eyebrow. And, while those things alone don’t undermine the credibility of the film, the cartoon Manichaeism does. In the movie, the Russian side is home to all depravity and the Georgian, all nobility, a situation which may occur in some wars but probably didn’t in this one.
Even if you accept that the Georgians were in the right in the war, you have to face the fact that Georgian artillery fired on Russian-sponsored militia in the breakaway provinces, handing Russia the casus belli. In the movie, this fact is absent; the Russians attack out of the blue, neutralizing the Georgian Air Force and a few kindergartens, and, naturally, the wedding that the hero, a reporter, is watching. Because every woman wants strange foreign correspondents at her wedding, right?
The essential plot challenge is for reporter Thomas Anders to get video documentation of Russian perfidy out to his network before the Russians step on him and make him disgorge the evidence. The one brilliant thing in the movie is that the network does not care: much like today’s CNN obsession with the lost Malaysia Airlines flight, then, the networks were
Johnathon Schaech (l.) with Renny Harlin on location.
Renny Harlin is considered anti-Russian by the Russian, and formerly the Soviet, governments since his very first film, American Born. The Soviets, in fact, exerted political pressure on the Finnish government to censor (several minutes of Soviets behaving like Soviets were cut) and ultimately ban the movie, and later, Russia managed to spike his planned biopic of Finnish war and political hero Marshal Mannerheim, whom Soviet historiography dismisses as a fascist. Harlin could probably make a pro-Russian film and Russian officialdom would hate it, but he didn’t do it this time.
In an interview, Harlin said at the time of the movie’s release:
I guess there were some parallels in terms of coming from Finland, and having lived in a small country next to a superpower, so I could certainly relate to the situation between Russia and Georgia. And I delved into the subject matter, and thought that this was another movie that was a true story, and I could really tell something powerful with it, and about wars that are going on all around the world, constantly. And I felt very passionate about this one.
We are sick of journalists and lawyers as heroes, and the good news is, in 5 Days of War it’s only journalists. Still, Harlin doesn’t agree with us:
I felt that the point of view of the journalists was also interesting, because they are sort of the unsung heroes. People don’t realise that they are in the front lines there and without weapons, and at the mercy of events.
A Russian Mi-24 kinetically expresses Putin’s dissatisfaction with Anders’s and Sebastian’s news coverage.
The movie skips around slightly confusedly between events with President Mikhail Saakashvili (based on reality), and events around Tskhinvali and Gori, Georgian towns attacked by the Russian Army. Saakashvili is depicted without mercy as mercurial and inconstant; the journalists as brave, but out of their depth; and the Georgian Army gets the most reverential treatment, despite having its ass thoroughly kicked by the Russians. Johnathon Schaech plays a Georgian captain with a knack for deus ex macchina arrivals, who becomes a sort of Georgian guardian angel to Anders. There is considerable religious symbology throughout — Georgia, of course, draws its name from its patron, St. George.
The action scenes punch above the movie’s $12-million-budget and 36-day-shooting-schedule weight.
Acting and Production
“For all I know, Vladimir Vladimirovich wants Ukraine next!” Andy Garcia nails Saakashvili’s shell-shocked look.
There are good actors in the film, some of them names. Andy Garcia perfectly captures the stress and wear upon President Saakashvili, a flawed and sometimes noble man who got his country in over its head. Rupert Friend and Richard Coyle are OK as the journalist Thomas Anders and his cameraman Sebastian Ganz. Val Kilmer has an excellent supporting turn as “Dutchman,” the sort of aging war photog wunderkind who remains in the grip of adrenaline addiction. Emmanuelle Chiriqui is the Georgian woman, Katya, who starts off as Anders’s guide to Georgian customs and winds up as his love interest, although it’s a chaste love that would not be out of place in a 1940s Hollywood flick.
Mikko Nousiainen as Daniil acting naughty with a Dragunov. Nousiainen brings the sinister to the part.
A villain can make or break a film, and 5 Days offers us two: Croatian actor Rade Šerbedžija as a Russian officer, Colonel Demidov, in a most un-Russian-Army scruffy and wrinkled get-up; and Finnish actor Mikko Nousiainen, who has an almost non-speaking but terrifying role as the Russo-Ossetian militia leader Daniil. Covered in prison tattoos, cruel and much more focused than his subordinates, who are distracted by opportunities for plunder and rape, Daniil is someone you really would not want to ever see, except through a riflescope, in which case you’d be doing all humanity a boon by taking up the slack in the trigger and sending him on to the next world.
There is also a young Russian soldier character, a kid who says not a word but shows he’s determined to hang on to his humanity. He’s very deftly inserted in just a couple of scenes.
The script and editing seem to jerk us back and forth, and the movie might have benefited by more focus, more direction, fewer characters, and much tighter editing. It’s a 90 minute movie delivered over a span of two hours.
Since the American reporter is your primary viewpoint character, and he’s a typical monoglot American, the technique of having the Georgians speak Georgian to one another when he’s around is very effective, but it’s a little jarring when we then cut to the President’s office — reportedly, the real President’s office was made available to Harlin — and the inner war councils of the Georgians speak English for the viewer’s convenience.
Dean Cain, an excellent actor, is underutilized as an American PR advisor to Garcia’s Saakashvili. It’s a bit sad that two such talented actors are tossed aside in a subplot that mostly just dumps exposition on us, before we go back to the action we’re truly concerned about, on and behind the front lines of the Russian invasion.
Accuracy and Weapons
Thanks to the Georgian official support, the guns in the film are mostly good, with a few exceptions, rooted perhaps in the double-edged sword of that Georgian support. The AKs, for example, are 7.62; Georgian SOF are using 7.62 AKs also; even the Russians use 7.62 AKs. During the war, the Russians at least used 5.46 AK-74s and Georgian SOF used M4A1s.
The bad guy and the good guy (Nousiainen and Schaech) both carry Beretta 92s, an odd choice. Nousiainen’s character also totes, as seen in the picture above, an SVD.
Generally gunfire sounds and sights are realistic, and even the aerial weapons are close (they’re shown with unrealistic full exhaust trails form launch to target, though).
CGI is used where it need be, when a helicopter must explode, for instance. Unfortunately the pyrotechnics are Hollywood: great gassy fireballs. We continue our lonely fight for realistic pyro, as the producers and directors of the whole industry laugh at us from atop a massive pile of money.
The bottom line
5 Days of War is a decent action film, perhaps 2.5 to 3 stars out of five, hampered by its excessive one-sidedness, that occasionally lapse into propaganda. Of course, you’re not going to get the Russian argument from a partially Georgian production, filmed just two years after the war that most Georgians see as naked, unprovoked Russian aggression.
This Georgian-government-sponsored movie is not the only film about the Georgian war, although it is the best known in the West. There are also two Russian government-sponsored films that we have yet to see, Olympus Inferno and August 8th. Olympus Inferno was made immediately after the war. It has a very similar plot to 5 Days of War, involving film of atrocities which must be exfiltrated, except with the sides reversed: the Ossetians and Russians are the good guys and the Georgians and their American puppetmasters are the bad guys. August 8th is an ambitious 2012 film that tells the story of the war from the dual viewpoints of a single mother and her son, who loses himself in a fantasy world.
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (33%, Rotten):