Lights, Camera… Political Unrest?
In 5 Days of War, a veteran action director changes the tone but keeps the pace.
By Jared Peterson
5 Days of War, the new film from director Renny Harlin, follows two journalists [Rupert Friend and Richard Coyle] as they attempt to uncover and broadcast the truth on the ground during the short but bloody conflict between Georgian and Russian forces in the border region of South Ossetia in 2008. This kind of real-life story is certainly a long way from the supernatural camp of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Harlin’s first mainstream feature (and first financial success), and his later action-hero vehicles Diehard 2 and Cliffhanger. But while 5 Days of War represents a departure for Harlin, it still bears something of his adrenaline-surged signature, leaning heavily on elaborately choreographed, large-scale action sequences and other tricks of the blockbuster trade to depict and frame the humanitarian tragedies of the event.
Mr. Harlin spoke to us recently about the challenges of using action-movie tactics with a message-movie strategy, and about turning over a new leaf with this and future endeavors.
What spurred the transition from mainstream action films to something that has such a tragic, real-life subject?
When I started making movies, I just loved telling stories and being on set, and all that excitement was enough for me. But when I got older and more experienced, I’d been really craving another reason to get up in the morning and go and do it. I knew that [this film] was what I had been looking for, and I could take the experience I had in the action movies and actually put it into use and do something real and something that I spiritually connected with. So it became a real passion for me, and I saw it as a big opportunity for me to do something that is a little more grown up than what I’ve done before.
How did that action film experience translate to this film?
It’s about preplanning and coordination. Because you can have great ideas, but if you don’t know how to lead the crew and the cast and the extras and the machinery through these situations, then you can’t get it made. And I think movies like Diehard 2, coordinating airplanes and big scenes like that, or Cliffhanger, coordinating a big unit in the Italian Alps in really extreme conditions, or Deep Blue Sea, dealing with tanks and animatronic sharks—it all prepared me for this, where I was dealing with 80 tanks and 6 fighter jets and 8 helicopters and thousands of troops. Instead of just being creative, it’s a different mind set when you have to be able to organize this machine.
Your production designer said that one of his goals was to “take the ‘Hollywood’ out of the war.” In developing and directing the movie, did you feel a similar obligation?
Definitely. There was sort of a blueprint of a script when I got involved, but I thought that script was actually too “Hollywood,” so I brought in a friend of mine, Mikko Alanne, who is a very serious writer. At the same time, it is a fiction film based on real events, so, of course, we wanted to inject drama into it. It had to be a movie that has those aspects of action and suspense and even romance that bring people to the theater.
Did you feel like you had to resist certain action-movie instincts, for fear of making the film seem too commercial?
Yes. I was trying to walk the line of telling a story that is as effective and entertaining a movie as possible, but at the same time speaks to the reality. There definitely is that line where, okay, there might be one explosion too many. So I had to try to keep that part of me in check.
The film received an R rating here in the US. Did you have any inclination to make changes to get a PG-13, say, to bring it to a larger audience?
I wouldn’t make changes into it. I would say that I am sometimes a little disappointed in the ratings system because this is a movie that, for a teen audience, could really bring a powerful message to them. And yes, there are some heavy things that happen in it, but it’s real life. I mean I couldn’t even begin to show everything that I saw. For example, in the city of Gori we shot the actual hospital where civilian and military victims of the first attacks were being brought in. Somebody had video of all of it, and they showed it to me, and it was unbelievable. And I recreated those scenes, but I couldn’t recreate quite what I saw, because no audience could tolerate it.
5 Days of War is told from a Georgian perspective. Did you feel an obligation to address a Russian side or an Ossetian side?
We had to take a certain point of view; we couldn’t try to serve every purpose. It’s something that the writer and I created based on the story we heard and based on a lot of research. So we believe that we are telling the truth and the facts of the war. In my mind it’s very clear what happened, and that’s the story I told.
You staged some huge battle scenes with real—not computer-generated—tanks and planes and helicopters. Do you prefer to do things “in camera” whenever possible?
CGI [computer-generated imagery] is a great ally to help you in certain situations. But personally, I really prefer to do things for real. I do feel that when you watch some of these comic book movies or today’s big action movies, they sometimes have the feel of an animated movie. If you can do things for real, different objects have different weights to them, and I think the audience appreciates it.
As a younger person, what was your favorite film that was actually aimed at younger people?
Dr. Doolitle—the original, starring Rex Harrison. I saw it when I was very young, and it just had a sense of adventure. The animals, the humor—it really affected me. I loved that movie growing up, and definitely one of my dreams is to make a real, old-fashioned adventure movie for kids—something like The Goonies or something like that. I have a son myself, 14 years old, and it’s been very interesting in recent years how his tastes are developing. He’s a really useful sounding board for me now, and I really want to make movies that he can enjoy and his friends can enjoy, and it’s changed my sense of responsibility and goals quite a bit.
5 Days of War
MPAA Rating: R
Appropriate for: 15+. Camaraderie and tension management amongst war correspondents understandably includes heavy drinking, swearing and some crude talk. The war violence is intense and sometimes disturbing. Sights of carnage that might not show up on the nightly news are not spared us here. Murder and pillage are shown in stark detail, and rape is strongly implied.