Jun 21st 2011, 14:34 by G.E. | TBILISI
FREE from the trappings of celebrity, and blessed with the wrong sort of friends, your correspondent usually attracts little attention on his trips to the cinema. But that changed the other day at Tbilisi’s first English-language screening of "5 Days of War", the new Hollywood film about the Russia-Georgia conflict of 2008. Twenty minutes in, earnest journalists inside the cinema shone the bright lights of their television cameras straight into our eyes. That a foreign audience wanted to see the film had become a story (of sorts) in Georgia.
Yet my experience was nothing next to the prèmiere screening of the Georgian-language version of the film a couple of weeks earlier. Tbilisi found itself on the receiving end of Hollywood royalty, in the form of Andy Garcia, who plays President Mikheil Saakashvili in the film, and Sharon Stone, who played herself at the launch. For one brief night, the city’s wealthiest rubbed shoulders with movie stars. (Never mind that only six months ago Ms Stone and others had gaily clapped along to Vladimir Putin’s gruesome rendition of Blueberry Hill in St Petersburg.) A dinner after the prèmiere raised almost a million dollars for families displaced by the war.
Beyond the largesse of philanthropists, the Georgian government knows the propaganda value of such cultural artefacts. Papuna Davitaia, the minister for "diaspora issues", co-produced the film. The ministry of defence provided the military hardware for the battle scenes. All the scenes featuring Mr Garcia were shot in the presidential palace or outside the parliament building.
But is it any good? Renny Harlin, the director, best known for films such as "Die Hard 2: Die Harder", is, it's fair to say, not exactly a master of nuance. The central message of "5 Days of War" is of an innocent Georgia abandoned by the outside world to the evil Russians. Forget the findings of the European Union report into the origins of the war, which accused both sides of breaking international law.
In the film’s account, Georgian army officers are good-looking, clean-cut and honourable; the Russians are unshaven, dishevelled and heartless. When Russian forces kill Georgian civilians, the film is unsparing in its depiction of their brutality; when Georgian soldiers fight back, the cartoonish explosions make for pure entertainment.
Underneath the nonsense, though, is a decent film struggling to emerge. The dialogue explains the politics (albeit with a heavy pro-Georgian slant) without patronising the audience. Although many of the film’s posters focus on Mr Garcia, he occupies little screen time: this is not a film about President Saakashvili. Georgia looks wonderful: the old part of Tbilisi is stunning, the countryside beautiful, and the traditional Georgian dancing remarkable. If nothing else, it should provide a boost to Georgia’s recovering tourism industry.
The most moving sequence comes at the end of the film, when actual survivors of the war talk about their killed relatives. Intermittently, the story touches on genuinely interesting themes, such as the continued attraction of war to hard-bitten (and hard-drinking) journalists. But too often it flatters to deceive; just as you hope the film will move beyond caricature, perfectly sculpted Georgian soldiers ride to the rescue.
It is not news that small wars in foreign places are only interesting to Hollywood audiences when acted out by physically perfect Americans. But the film goes too far in claiming that the world’s media were indifferent to the conflict in Georgia. Although the opening of the Beijing Olympics overshadowed the beginning of the fighting, the Russian-Georgian war became the biggest story of late summer 2008, until Lehman collapsed and the global financial crisis took centre stage.
Overall, "5 Days of War" feels unsure of itself, as if it had been made by committee. As a way of honouring the civilians or war reporters killed in the conflict, it falls short. As a way of shaping international opinion, the action-film format would work better in a world run by teenage boys.
About Eastern approaches
Eastern approaches deals with the economic, political, security and cultural aspects of the eastern half of the European continent. It incorporates the long-running "Europe.view" weekly column. The blog is named after the wartime memoirs of the British soldier Sir Fitzroy Maclean.
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