Renny Harlin and the Russo-Georgian War

Ever since the glory days of Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2, Renny Harlin has been a reliable Hollywood hack: an artiste of the brash, the brutal and the High Concept. Like Tony Scott but without the subtleties, or a budget Bruckheimer brat, his films are made to be consumed and discarded, leaving only the clearest traces of adrenaline. In this junk oeuvre there is, however, one jarring anomaly: 2011’s 5 Days of War, a film about the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. The genesis of this project is obscure and slightly murky, but there are intriguing leads to follow. For example, it is interesting to know that the executive producer was a Georgian parliamentarian and party colleague of President Mikheil Saakashvili, or that the film’s funds were channeled through a shadowy Georgian mining company that nobody had ever heard of. It is useful, I would say, to learn that it was shot on location in Georgia with parliamentary buildings and military hardware lent to the film crew for free. With such sponsors, the product could only ever be unapologetic propaganda, and the Finnish director was clearly the man for the job: like the Georgians, he knew a thing or two about Russian aggression.

5 Days of War starts like a stupid Scoop in a raucous Tbilisi bar with a gang of hard-boozing war reporters swapping jaundiced wise-cracks and hitting on waitresses. They have come from all over their battle-scarred world to watch the Russian tanks roll into South Ossetia, drawn by brand new trouble like — why not drop a cliché? — moths to a flame. The clichés, in fact, roll thick and fast: a mélange of Mahogany Ridge, Bang-Bang Club and “anybody here been raped and speak English?” These reporters and photographers are a mixed pack of high-functioning addicts and trapped adolescents: irresponsible, self-centred, and driven by personal demons. They have flak jackets, notebooks, flash cameras and cool Zippo lighters. They have a cynical disdain for humanity, yet care too much to leave it alone. They are good people at heart: flawed, but always on hand to expose evil when it happens. There is a thin layer of Human Rights Watch exploitation grafted on to the Tony Scott turbulence, a liberal indulgence possibly inspired by Harlin’s own proximity to the heart of the conflict. (He is not wrong on this, either.)

Harlin’s movie pursues American television reporter Thomas Anders (Rupert Fiend) and British cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Richard Goyle) deep into the Caucasus maelstrom, and a lot of awful things start happening very quickly. Russian Su-25s zoom out of the deep black Georgian night and fire missiles at a rural wedding party; innocent, good-looking revellers are shredded. Roadblocks manned by thick-faced Russian irregulars delay cars in which people are visibly dying in back seats. Unhinged Ossetian militiamen rampage through Georgian villages, looting homes, raping daughters and murdering local leaders. Anders and Ganz manage to capture one gratuitous Ossetian atrocity on camera and the plot builds on their quest to broadcast this footage to a world otherwise distracted by the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing. Georgia’s plight barely makes the international news agenda.  Mikheil goes berserk in the Presidential Palace as Bush and Sarkozy ignore pleas for military intervention. Sarkozy, at the time, did have his own agenda, which involved appeasement of the Putin regime, but Bush had no excuse. The film does well to note that Georgia had sent the third largest contingent of troops to Iraq, while Saakashvili made hopeful steps towards NATO and EU membership. He felt like he’d earned some protection — or even a response — from Western leaders as the Kremlin threatened to overthrow his regime and occupy his country. This was a critical moment of political drama that the film inexplicably fails to capture: the President and his aides holed up in the Palace, making desperate calls to hesitant allies, waiting for the Russian army to arrive.

This is all fine, incidentally: an open case made with digital precision, wild pyrotechnics and silly stereotypes. At a Los Angeles screening in 2011, the real Saakashvili stood up in front of an audience thick with expatriate Georgians to proclaim 5 Days a “masterpiece” — and, for him, what else could it be? There’s Andy Garcia depicting his heroics with slick Godfather III-style vim and sheen, steadfast as the Kremlin War Machine bears down on lonely, defiant Tbilisi. In fact, as Russians and other critics of the film point out, hostilities began with a Georgian assault on Tskhinvali rather than a Russian invasion. But if the film fails to mention this then it also does not explain that Georgian action was provoked by the ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia (the war’s second front) and Russia’s covert sponsorship of separatism in South Ossetia. This was secession by social engineering and annexation by stealth: an on-going aggressive territorial move by Russia designed to dismember Georgia in retribution for the offence of independence, given extra impetus by Putin’s personal animosity to Saakashvili. You will note that the Kremlin’s enthusiasm for South Ossetian “independence” did not extend to North Ossetia, larger and more populated and yet within the boundaries of the Russian Federation. It did not extend to Chechnya, to say the least. 

Therefore, even in the semi-fictional context of  Harlin’s pro-Georgian propaganda flick, Saakashvili could be outraged at Russia’s “unprovoked” aggression and get away with it, because he was right. The depiction of random Russian air strikes and marauding Ossetian militias was not without foundation or very far-fetched at all. The city of Gori, the film’s final battlefield, really was hit by Russian cluster bombs and despoiled by Ossetian gangs as Georgian troops retreated to defend Tbilisi. (In fact, to track the film’s narrative even closer, a Dutch journalist was actually killed by a Russian cluster bomb in Gori’s central square.) This was not a work of art, it was a political, partisan product. But the story Harlin told contained an essential truth: for Putin, ethnic resentment was a weapon he could use to create the conflict he wanted. The aim was imperial restitution and he cynically exploited the murderous parochial ambitions of his proxies to obtain it. This is what happened in Georgia, and Saakashvili had no real option but to react with force. He was, at this terrifying moment, both courageous and correct. His performance, you could say, was worthy of Andy Garcia.


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