The word on Act of Valor is that it’s a war film with a difference -- while it’s a scripted story, most of the leading roles are played by actual active-duty Navy SEALs, and the picture was shot during SEAL training exercises in order to provide a level of realism that’s new to the screen. After watching the movie, it’s hard to say if all the effort was worth it -- directors Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh may have gotten a lot more production value than if they had simply hired actors and rented military equipment, but they didn’t bother to come up with a script that offers anything fresh in the way of story or characters, and while their novice cast members may be elite warriors, they clearly aren’t actors.
Act of Valor grew from a short documentary project McCoy and Waugh produced in 2007 on Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, and the Navy cooperated with the making of this dramatic feature as a vehicle to promote recruitment. However, according to an article in the Huffington Post, most Navy commanders never expected that the film would see a wide theatrical release, and some are uncomfortable with the attention it focuses on a group of servicemen who pride themselves on being tight-lipped about their work. The filmmakers have gone so far as to not fully identify the SEALs who appear in the movie, using only their ranks and first names in the credits, though if we’re to believe that this was done in the interest of military security, someone clearly wasn’t thinking -- it would be pretty easy to work out the identity of a particular soldier with two hours of footage and voice material (not to mention video of family members as well).
Regardless of their identities, the presence of the SEALs is the film’s greatest selling point, especially in the wake of highly publicized raids that freed hostages in Somalia and brought down Osama bin Laden. While the filmmakers clearly admire their heroic stars, they haven’t given them much of a story to work with. Act of Valor’s narrative is flimsy and stuffed with cliches, while the villains are strictly cookie-cutter bad guys already familiar from grade-B action flicks -- a Russian mafioso who wholesales drugs and weapons, a Muslim extremist from Chechnya who has declared jihad on the United States, and a handful of scowling members of a violent Mexican drug cartel. As it happens, the Russian mobster and the crazed jihadist are boyhood friends, and the gangster has been helping finance a terrorist attack on America; when a raid to rescue a kidnapped CIA operative uncovers information on the plot, the SEAL team that recovered the agent must stop the plan before it’s too late.
Having been shot during military exercises with some very impressive hardware on display and real bullets flying in many sequences, McCoy and Waugh were clearly aiming for a powerful verisimilitude, but they’ve managed to add enough CGI explosions and blood spray to remind us that this is fiction. In addition, a scene in which a SEAL standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier talks to his wife on a cell phone while a jet takes off just a few feet away suggests McCoy and Waugh have put far too much faith in the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. (And while it’s a current trend to shoot and edit action sequences with a frantic jumpiness that makes it hard to tell who’s firing at whom, in this story that’s a serious mistake.) As for the acting, the professional actors overplay broadly enough to make the SEALs seem even less gifted that they might otherwise appear. All sober, square-jawed, and speaking in an impassioned monotone that would do Jack Webb proud, the SEALs suggest John Wayne without his humor or charisma, and while they’re earnest as all get out, they reveal little in the way of individual personality; while that’s probably an advantage in a military exercise, it’s a real handicap in making an audience care about these guys. They reveal the same level of emotion while discussing their wives and kids or the particulars of their next mission, and their flat, matter-of-fact attitude points to the reality that soldiers aren’t trained to make their emotions and motives understandable to others -- actors are. The gushing sentimentality and clumsy patriotism of Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay, which leaves no cliche unturned and strives to manipulate every emotion within reach, would feel hackneyed under the best of circumstances. In the hands of McCoy and Waugh, who are better with helicopters than people, and the non-acting SEALs, who are stuck with an assignment for which they were clearly never trained, it all seems ridiculous enough to border on the surreal. The men and women of America’s military, who put their lives on the line every day in the service of our nation, deserve a far better tribute than Act of Valor, which, for all its “realism,” never manages to seem honest or sincere.
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