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. 


The Fruits of Diplomacy

An unexpected source of sweetness has been injected into U.S.-Pakistani relations. Late last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that the first shipment of mangoes imported from Pakistan had arrived in the United States. Previously, Pakistani mangoes had been banned in the U.S. because of concerns they might bring pests into the country.

In celebration of this first shipment, the Pakistani consulate in Chicago hosted a "mango party" at which a large assortment of mango-based delicacies and desserts were served. Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani attended the event and has also sent boxes of renowned "Chaunsa" mangoes to U.S. leaders including the president and various senators. Ambassador Haqqani heralded the event as the culmination of "two years of strategic dialogue with the Americans," in an effort that reached to officials at the highest levels of the U.S. foreign policy establishment including Secretary of State Clinton and the late Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke. Ambassador Haqqani declared, "this is something we are very happy a time when U.S. Pakistan relations are being reported as tense, this is finally some sweet news."

With nearly $250 million in mangoes coming in each year, the United States is currently the world's largest mango importer. Pakistan is the world's sixth largest mango producer. Many hope that these mangoes will promote more trade between the U.S. and Pakistan, and mark a transition for Pakistan from aid recipient to equal economic partner.

Across the Pacific, China too has begun to use fruit to further its political and diplomatic aims. The Chinese government has been purchasing large quantities of Taiwanese fruit in an effort to influence the votes of southern Taiwanese farmers. Taiwan has a major fruit overproduction problem. Chinese officials hope that by buying the excess fruit and helping the farmers economically, they may be able to sway them politically and take votes away from the nationalist Democratic People's Party in the 2012 presidential election.

In May 2005, China announced a "zero-tariff" policy on 15 Taiwanese fruits, a move the Taiwanese government considered "an all-out united front campaign to manipulate Taiwan's farmers" and one that is aimed "to temper Taiwan's negative reaction to the passage of the ‘anti-separation law'" (which outlines China's willingness to violently respond to a Taiwanese declaration of independence). Then in 2008, when Taiwan was overproducing oranges, a Chinese company purchased 1,200 tons of oranges. Between 2009 and 2010, fruit exports from Taiwan to China grew nearly 130 percent. This summer, as Taiwanese banana growers have struggled with overproduction, the Chinese government has once again expressed a willingness to help out. The governor of Shandong province alone has pledged to purchase 5,000 tons of bananas.

Of course, when fruit goes bad it can complicate diplomacy. Last month, nearly 100 Americans contracted salmonella from imported Mexican papayas. Currently, officials on both sides of the border are working hard to make sure that relations between the two countries do not sour as a result of the diseased fruit.