5 Days of War is burdened with too many nick-of-time rescues and a preposterously unlikely ending. Still, the movie is notable for its agonizingly authentic war-is-hell look, and for drawing attention to the savagery of a very recent conflict that most of the world already has forgotten.
In August 2008, Russian troops and hired mercenaries invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia, ostensibly to protect citizens of two Georgian provinces seeking independence. While the decidedly pro-Georgia film acknowledges differences of opinion about the cause of the conflict and who shot first, there is no disputing the short war’s devastating impact on tens of thousands of Georgian civilians.
Rupert Friend stars as TV journalist Thomas Anders, first seen being rescued from a 2007 Shiite ambush in Iraq by Georgian troops allied with American forces there. A year later in Los Angeles, Anders hears that trouble is brewing between Russia and Georgia. Soon he is pounding drinks in a Georgian bar with the usual complement of stereotypical international correspondents, including his fearlessly loyal cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle), a crusty seen-it-all vet named Stilton (Ken Cranham) and an eccentric bohemian called the Dutchman (Val Kilmer). There’s also a sexy photographer named Zoe (Antje Traue) who offers the helpful career tip that “everything’s easier in a miniskirt.”
Anders’ involvement in the story that he is there to cover becomes personal when he and Ganz rescue a gorgeous Georgian schoolteacher named Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui, bearing a striking resemblance to the bangs-era Demi Moore). Attempting to reunite Tatia with her family, they witness scenes of torture, mass murder and shocking destruction on an epic scale.
The Russian attacks are so overwhelming and convincing that the movie is rated R for “strong bloody war violence and atrocities.” In addition to choreographing some of the most large-scale and grittily realistic action set-pieces since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, director Renny Harlin keeps the tension level high as Anders and company desperately try to get news about Russian war crimes to an indifferent world that’s more interested in the Beijing Olympics.
In the Georgian capital, President Mikheil Saakashvili (Andy Garcia) becomes increasingly frustrated with the lack of tangible international support for his country as Russian troops continue to advance. An advisor tells Saakashvili that US President George W Bush believes Russia’s claims that Georgia is to blame. Curiously, the film omits any mention of how the topic was raised during that summer’s American presidential campaign, which would determine Bush’s successor less than three months later. (Major-party candidates Barack Obama and John McCain both spoke out against Russia’s violation of Georgian sovereignty.)
The movie’s villains are a genuinely nasty lot. Rade Serbedzija is the brutal Russian Col Demidov, whose troops fight alongside bands of terrifying and murderous mercenaries. One of those monsters is the sadistic, heavily tattooed Daniil (Mikko Nousiainen), who euphemistically notes that the Russians “pay us well for special jobs.”
Despite some popcorn-sensibility plot problems, including a climax that’s so outrageously unlikely it should have been a character’s fantasy, 5 Days of War gets message-movie points for showing the collateral damage caused by even such a short modern-warfare conflict. The film ends with short but moving testimonials from several real-life relatives of the war’s victims.