Truth is the first casualty of war movies

A new film about the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008 claims to be ‘based on actual events’. Like hell it is.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Renny Harlin’s Five Days of War, a film about the conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008, is possibly the most bone-headed piece of war propaganda I have ever seen in a cinema. Seriously. Forget John Wayne’s unfortunate foray into the Vietnam War in 1968’s The Green Berets, or the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down, which presented America’s ill-fated invasion of Somalia in 1993 as a battle between chisel-jawed hunks and drugged-up wogs. Neither of those movies is a match for this one, in which the Georgian president is a teary-eyed hero of democracy while the Russians are all toothless brutes who play the accordion as they chase bloodied, half-naked girls through pig farms.

As with so many war films these days, the action is based around that most important protagonist: the war reporter. The movie tells the story of the Russian-Georgian War entirely from the perspective of American reporter Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and his cameraman Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle). In 2008, these two Americans witnessed some Russian and South Ossetian killings, as those forces entered into Georgian territory, and then struggled, against time, against cackling Russians with guns and tattoos, against uncaring TV executives in America, to have their footage broadcast to the world.

Taking the self-obsession of journalists to dizzy new heights, Five Days of War frames the whole conflict around the question of ‘what will happen to Anders’ and Ganz’s memory card’? Crazy cossacks, desperate to destroy the memory card and its footage of their brutal killings, pursue the brave and gregarious Americans through Georgian villages. At one point our heroes are forced to bury the memory card, before later digging it up, under a hail of bullets of course, and hurrying off to find a news station somewhere in Georgia where they might upload their explosive film and expose to an ignorant world ‘the truth’ about what is being done to Georgia. Will they make it before having their throats slit by the wild-eyed, bald-headed Ruskie soldier who has an ominous collection of carving knives? Will their laptop screen say ‘Upload Complete’ before that helicopter in the distance turns its guns on our heroic gaggle of drink-sodden but loveable pursuers of truth? Will you stay awake long enough to find out?

The ins and outs of the Russian-Georgian War itself, which are a mere backdrop to the more pressing issue of what will become of the memory card, are presented in such simplistic terms that I’m sure even the Georgian department of propaganda balked with embarrassment. The conflict in 2008 centred around the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia, with Georgia saying it was fighting to hold on to this age-old part of Georgian territory, while Russia justified its intervention as an attempt to protect South Ossetia from Georgian aggression. The conformist media narrative in 2008, repeated in virtually every newspaper, was that Georgia was a brave and plucky republic representative of all that is good and pure about Western-style democracy, while Russia was a ‘bully wreaking havoc’, as one journalist put it. In short, this was a straightforward clash between sad, put-upon but bravely aspirant Georgia and the dark and dirty forces of modern Russia. That is, between Good and Evil.

The truth, it almost goes without saying, was far more complicated. Firstly, Georgia, far from being a beacon of democracy, had throughout the 2000s become an increasingly authoritarian regime, given to squishing media outlets that criticised the government and criminalising opposition parties. Secondly, Russia, far from taking action in Georgia in 2008 as part of some sinister, super-expansionist plan, was actually acting out of desperation, behaving in a recklessly militaristic fashion because it felt its sovereign authority being eroded by challenges from various ex-Soviet republics. And thirdly, the Western powers, far from being the potential resolvers of the 2008 war, as the many hacks demanding Western intervention would have had us believe, had already done more than their fair share to ratchet up tensions between the former Soviet republics and Moscow. America’s arming, massive funding and goading of Georgia and other one-time Soviet entities gave rise to a situation where Russia was increasingly surrounded, on its south-western border in particular, by hostile, well-armed republics. Such tensions reached boiling point in 2008.

Indeed, two months after the war ended, in October 2008, those of us who had challenged the simplistic depiction of it were vindicated by a report revealing that Georgia had behaved in a highly provocative fashion in those bloody days in August. A New York Times analysis of OSCE observational reports of the war confirmed that Georgia, not Russia, had been the first aggressor. Georgian forces shelled both South Ossetian civilians and Russian ‘peacekeepers’ before there had been any provocation from Russia. As the NYT said, Georgia’s ‘inexperienced military’ attacked first, with ‘indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire’. This was a story, not of evil Russia crushing its enemies, but of an immature republic, feeling emboldened by American largesse, behaving in an extremely unwise and ill-thought-through fashion.

Of course, few of these facts were allowed to invade the media presentation of the war in 2008. Instead, for many reporters, the war became a kind of Bosnia substitute, the journalistic equivalent of methadone for hacks still coming down from the heroin high of the Bosnian civil war, in which, they imagined, they had been witnesses to a new Holocaust executed by Serbs against Muslims. In Georgia they once again went on the hunt for good guys and bad guys, and found them in decent, upstanding Georgia and rotten, lowdown Russia. Truth is the first casualty of such moralism.

Five Days of War takes this media narrative to otherworldly levels. So the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili (played by Andy Garcia!) is depicted as an emotionally in-tune, democracy-loving guy who takes no military action until long after his nation has been assaulted by Russia and its even more barbaric South Ossetian sidekicks. The Russians and South Ossetians are shown as being completely mental, like something out of a pre-political correctness James Bond movie, killing anything that moves, including cows, and at one point laughing hysterically as they force a sexy young Georgian girl to ride a bicycle through a field in her nightie. The movie rather confirms that the strange white people in the furthest eastern bits of the European continent have replaced Africans as cinema’s favourite psychotic weirdos.

It will surely come as no surprise to anyone that one of the producers of the film is Mirza Davitaia, a Georgian minister of state. But this isn’t an old-fashioned kind of war propaganda. It is fuelled more by the narcissism of Western reporters and observers than by the desk-banging demands of despots in Georgia. In focusing on two journalists’ own little war to protect a memory card, the film sends the powerful message that hacks are the preservers of memory itself, of truth and history, against those barbarians who wish to destroy it. At one point, the character of Thomas Anders, with actor Rupert Friend mustering up all the smugness he can manage, tells the bald-headed Russian with the carving knives that the memory card’s footage has already been sent to Human Rights Watch. ‘So it’s all over’, Anders tells him. Yes, that’s right – the war is over and Human Rights Watch won. The truth, meanwhile, not for the first time, lies bloodied and dying somewhere on the battlefield.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

Five Days of War is on general release in America and Australia. It went straight to DVD in Britain. Watch the trailer:

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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