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Lights, camera, Georgia

Last night, I had the chance to attend the first U.S. screening of 5 Days of War, a new action movie set during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war.  The publicity surrounding the film has largely focused on its funding-- its biggest financial backer is a Georgian gold mining magnate who also sits in the country's parliament and the Georgian military participated significantly in its production -- and its unlikely director Remy Harlin, better known from popcorn shoot-em-ups like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger than political dramas. 

I was less interested in the political message -- it's a pro-Georgian, anti-Russian movie, and doesn't pretend to be anything else -- than it how effective it was. The backers of this project seemed to have something in mind along the lines of Hotel Rwanda or The Killing Fields, films that effectively raised awareness and framed a certain narrative of international tragedies that got little attention in the U.S. while they were going on. Did they get they're money's worth?

Well...not really. The movie is framed by the redemption story of Thomas Anders -- a freelance television journalist played by Rupert Friend. We first meet Anders in Iraq in a scene that simultaneously sets up his internal conflict -- he spends the film wrestling with the guilt caused by the death of his girlfriend (played by Heather Graham, for some reason) -- and highlights the participation of Georgian troops in the U.S. war in Iraq war. 

Several years later, things are heating up in the North Caucasus, as we are informed by an exposition-heavy news broadcast complete with a red-menace-style animated map of Russia engulfing its neighbors. ("Welcome to Cold War: The Sequel," says one character, in case you didn't get the idea.) Anders and his amiable British cameraman Sebastian fly to Tblisi where the audience is treated to a Travel Channel-style montage of Georgia's beautiful scenery and people. (I give Harlin credit for attempting to make Georgia appear to be both a victim of unspeakable atrocities and an excellent tourist destination. This culminates in a country wedding where an authentic folk dance is interrupted by a Russian bombing run complete with splattered blood and severed limbs.)

Anders and Sebastian cross into South Ossetia where they are trapped by the fighting, rescue a beautiful Georgian political science student, played by Entourage's Emanuelle Chiriqui, and witness the massacre of a village by irregular pro-Russian forces commanded by a demonic tattooed cossack. The second half of the film consists of hour heroes attempting to get their footage out to the world as the country descends into a bloodbath. Val Kilmer shows up briefly as a foul-mouthed, alchaholic war correspondent who says things like, "War is like a toothless old whore."

These plotline is intercut with scenes back in Tblisi featuring Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, played by Andy Garcia, trying in vain to get the international community to intervene. (The D.C. wonk crowd might get a kick out of the shout-out to former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, now Ambassador to Azerbaijan, Matthew Bryza.)

The movie has some problems with tone. One minute we're watching an elderly woman be shot in the legs and left to drown in a stream, then a few minutes later Georgian commandos are bursting through windows to the rescue, John McClane-style. There are a few plot points that don't quite make sense. (Why do our heroes have to sneak into an abandoned broadcast center in Gori while the city is being bombed, rather than returning to Tblisi where half the western media is camped out?) Garcia is a great physical match for Saakashvili and has his intensity down, but the rest of the acting is a little uneven, particularly Chiriqui, who accentlessness is unconvincingly explained away by the fact that she studied in the U.S.

The bigger problem with the movie may be that it's not quite clear what it's trying to communicate, and to whom. The film opens with Senator Hiram Johnson's famous quote, "The first casualty when war comes is truth." (A staunch isolationist, Johnson would almost certainly have opposed intervening in Georgia.) The journalists are continually frustrated by the world's indifference to the conflict, which took place during the 2008 Olympics. Moreover, as one character says, "Everyone's taking the Kremlin line," that Georgia shot first and Russian forces were acting to defend civilians.

That's not quite how I remember it. The war was actually a pretty big story when it was happening. Saakashvili was constantly giving his take on events in Western media interviews. A Senator and presidential candidate even famous proclaimed, "We are all Georgians."

It's fair to say that Georgia has falled off the radar screen for most Americans, but the country still has pretty robust representation in Washington, as was evident at last night's screening, and to the extent that most Americans remember the war, I would wager they probably take the Georgian side. 

I suspect the movie's extremely negative portrayal of Russian troops won't shock too many Americans, who have been treated to evil big-screen Russkies for decades. People familiar with the situation are unlikely to have their opinions changed by the movie. People who aren't, probably won't go see it. Val Kilmer isn't quite the box office draw he used to be. 

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