All wars, however brief, are brutal; not surprisingly, this principle held true in the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.
As the summer Olympics in Beijing, China were underway, Russia, nominally in support of two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, invaded neighboring Georgia, previously a part of the Soviet Union. After five days of conflict, hundreds were dead and more than 150,000 were displaced. And now, under the helm of director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger), the war gets the Hollywood treatment in 5 Days of War.
A year after losing his girlfriend in Iraq, reporter Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) enlists his partner in journalism Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) to go to Georgia, mere days before the war. When the bombing starts, they rescue Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who agrees to be their translator in exchange for their help in finding her family.
From the first scene, it is clear the cast is the highlight of the film. Friend’s performance mixes the excitement of seeing a conflict with an emotional distance brought on because of his losses. As Ganz, Coyle is a snarky compatriot to the withdrawn lead, and the pair’s scenes together crackle with wit. It’s one of the best depictions of journalists in the field on film.
The supporting cast is also admirable. Chriqui finds a delicate balance between overwhelming emotion and determination. In his small but important scenes near the end, Rade Serbedzija gives a frighteningly subdued performance as the leader of a South Ossetian militia.
The film’s best scene comes as he and Anders sit down over a game of chess to exchange world views. The idea of two men on different sides swapping philosophy is an overplayed trope in cinema, but thanks to great chemistry between Serbedzija and Friend, it is a fascinating and suspenseful moment.
Andy Garcia is also compelling as the beleaguered Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. Stuck with few options and almost no outside support, Saakashvili is torn between trying to prevent a larger conflict and protecting his people. In character, Garcia sells every bit of it. The only downside is that he feels disconnected from the main narrative of Anders and Ganz.
And that is where the film trips up. The plot operates on two levels, telling the journalists’ perspectives as they both try to flee to safety and report the war while covering Saakashvili’s attempts to avoid war. The latter is needed to provide the exposition to the drama of the former, but while one is a character based survival-thriller, the other’s clean, office-based scenes feel too disconnected.
At the same time, the well-written dramatic moments are interspersed with a number of scenes that feel forced and clichéd, from last-minute rescues to crucial moments that are emphasized to the point of ruining the desired effect.
The film, however, does benefit from impressive cinematography. Checco Varese, director of photography, using RED Digital Cinema cameras — the same high-definition system used in District 9 — and made almost every shot count. Filmed on location in Georgia, 5 Days of War is full of rich scenery, as well as detailed, gritty moments of combat.
Varese and Harlin avoid oversaturating the film, barring the introductory scene in Tbilisi, with beautiful shots simply for the sake of their beauty. The visuals enhance, but never hinder the storytelling.
The film’s biggest fault, however, lies in its stylistic approach. For half of the film — including the intense opening segment in Iraq — Harlin takes on a very naturalistic style devoid of fancy scores, camera tricks or clichés. It fits both the subject matter and the main characters.
Unfortunately, the other half embraces all of those tropes. Dramatic scenes are slowed down, given an overpowering musical accompaniment and thereby stripped of the drama the situation and the actors bring to those moments. Even the establishing shots of Tbilisi, visually brilliant, are marred by an extremely out of place techno track.
It is not to say that 5 Days of War is a film using a real tragedy as a backdrop for Hollywood melodrama or action. Instead, it seems committed to telling the story of the war, but unsure as to how. At the helm is Harlin, unable to let the powerful moments stand on their own.
In the end, it’s a flawed film, a powerful cast and a compelling topic weighed down by the production they are attached to.