As the movie admits, truth is the first casualty of war propaganda films ... er, just war
Directed by Renny Harlin and financed by the Georgian government, this drama is a Russian-bashing screed about the 2008 South Ossetia war and the events leading to it. The movie revolves around the experiences of two news reporters Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) who accept an assignment in Tbilisi, Georgia, a year after their previous assignment together in Iraq ended badly: the two men were rescued by a Georgian military unit in that country after their car was ambushed by militants. Anders and Ganz's noses for news (and trouble) get them fired upon while watching a wedding at a rural Georgian inn, avoiding capture while witnessing and filming atrocities by Russian troops who have invaded the country, and ending up as prisoners of a Russian general (Rade Serbedzija). While simultaneously escaping, yet being drawn to, trouble and danger, the reporters pick up a Georgian woman, Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a guest at the wedding at the inn. Through Tatia and a collective effort to broadcast Ganz's images to the rest of the world while keeping them away from the Russians, Anders finds a new purpose in life and a reason to go on living.
The romance between Anders and Tatia doesn't make sense: why should the two fall in love simply because chance threw them together and put them in danger together and individually? Any "chemistry" that might exist isn't present and the pair's kiss looks like an after-thought. More believable is Anders's loyalty to Ganz when Ganz is injured in a bomb attack and apparently dying: the two have been in many intense life-and-death situations which few other people can understand and sympathise with. Both men are devoted to seeking the truth behind layers of propagandistic fog though paradoxically this search can make them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and the military. The plot's emphasis on safeguarding the memory stick that holds Ganz's images and the Russians' attempt to destroy it leaves no room for character development with the result that Anders, Ganz and their fellow journalists end up perpetuating old World War Two stereotypes about Russian soldiers torturing and killing people, raping women and torching farms and properties with flamethrowers. (Such stereotypes admittedly are based on fact: Soviet soldiers did act barbarically towards German civilians in the 1940s, partly as a result of the debased culture in the Soviet armed forces that arose after the purges of high-ranking military officers in the 1930s as ordered by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, a Georgian native - what irony.) As the movie carries on, hackneyed plot twists appear: Tatia's family is riven apart by internal betrayal, Ganz is threatened with torture by the Russian general's sadistic enforcer (Nikko Mousiainen), an attempt to broadcast Ganz's images fails when the reporters are targeted by a Russian helicopter, and Ganz is hurt in the helicopter attack. The enforcer kidnaps Tatia and forces Anders to choose between saving her life and keeping Ganz's film.
The film could have focused more closely on the dilemmas that journalists in war zones face: for one thing, whether the search for truth justifies putting their own lives and the lives of innocents in danger. There are various political and ethical decisions they have to make: how closely should they work with the government or the military? how would such work interfere with their journalist code of ethics? There is a female journalist featured who is embedded with a Georgian army unit and viewers may well wonder what compromises she made to get the story and pictures she wants for her employer. Will the opinions she expresses and the images she shows reflect a definite political agenda? The actors do what they can with the story and give at least a three-dimensional look to their characters. Andy Garcia as Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili gives the best performance, endowing his character with a dignity the real person probably doesn't deserve: before the 2008 war, Saakashvili had been criticised for the use of brutal police force against protesters in an anti-government demonstration, and for declaring a state of emergency and suppressing press freedoms as a result of the protests, in November 2007. Well-known US actors Val Kilmer and Dean Cain do little other than parrot their lines and strut about as reporter and diplomat respectively and fellow US actor Jonathan Schaek as Georgian military officer Captain Avaliani spends his screen time saving Anders and Ganz's hides.
Any saving graces are in the Georgian settings: the cinematography features some lovely shots of a town perched on cliffs overlooking a winding river and of the countryside with its mountains and deep gorges. A church used as a refuge gives the film crew opportunities to photograph pictures of religious icons and the wedding scene featured early in the movie gives a little insight into Georgian customs, traditional dress styles and folk dances. Curiously there are no native Georgian actors in the film's major and minor acting roles; Georgians are present only as extras.
By lapsing into an action-movie rut the film fails to give a near-accurate portrayal of the work news journalists do and the problems they face in unusual and intense situations where disinformation, propaganda and fear replace speech and press freedoms. The film does not do what it claims to do: the source of the film's financing alone puts paid to any pretence of impartiality and regard for truth. The Georgian armed forces are portrayed as decent and heroic, the Russians as cruel, barbaric and even criminal: in truth, both sides were guilty of over-reaction to provocation with Georgia attacking South Ossetia first with heavy firepower and both Georgians and Russians alike committing grave war crimes. The US role in supplying arms and military training to Georgia since the Rose Revolution in 2003 and encouraging a belligerent attitude towards Russia should not go uncondemned either.
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