Oh, where to begin with Act of Valor? With the fact that you won’t forget it? Sure, that’s usually a sign of a film at least worth reviewing. If you see it — and no offense intended, but if you’re getting hot and bothered anticipating this movie, you’re either a military enthusiast or you probably fancy yourself a tough guy — you will remember it. It’s the proudly jingoistic product of some very odd, if strikingly plausible, marketing decisions.
The first of which is the buzz around the movie that really is the movie: it’s a Navy SEAL action flick cast with actual Navy SEALs. And you don’t have to follow movie buzz to know this, either. Proving they didn’t have enough confidence in their movie to let it speak for itself, the two directors, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, pop up before the opening credits to talk to us about how this high-concept came about. Looking to research an action film that the US Navy had asked them to make about the SEALs, McCoy and Waugh requested to meet with the actual guys. The SEALs reported for duty, but as the directors were watching and learning, they decided they absolutely could not tell their story with actors, as originally intended. It just had to be done with the real guys.
So the “real guys” is what we get: active-duty special forces soldiers who play “themselves,” and not in a docu-recreation sense. In an action movie sense. A doc would have provided an unprecedented look at the currently-in-vogue SEALs, but it also would have meant scrapping the whole action movie idea, which is what the directors (and the Navy) wanted from the get-go. So the movie tries to have it both ways: the SEALs are the actors, ostensibly to retain verisimilitude, but they’re run through a series of missions and gunfights that have been written for them (by the guy who wrote 300, no less), ostensibly to make audiences happy to have bought a ticket.
It’s been done before — Herzog using Bruno S. to essentially play himself in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser comes to mind — but these filmmakers are not using non-actors the way DeSica and Herzog and Harmony Korine use(d) them. The goal is not art. Quite intentionally the opposite. If any word accurately describes the goal of this movie, it is “nationalism.” That’s a nicer word than “opportunism,” which is itself a bit nicer than saying Act of Valor is “blatantly exploitative” or that it’s “military propaganda pouncing on the recent popularity of the Navy SEALs after the assassination of Osama bin Laden.”
The story that these filmmakers have concocted for these real SEALs to act out is pure Tom Clancy. It’s all about romanticizing soldiering, especially when it insists — and for the sake of action fans, it does insist — on the gory details. There isn’t anything to it beyond fetishizing heavy weaponry, reducing military life to a series of teary-eyed goodbyes with loved ones in between missions to save the world, and the pure evil of bad guys intent on blowing Americans up for our capitalist sins. This isn’t a movie about soldiering, though the use of real soldiers would suggest it. It’s a movie about the glory of war, and aside from a few sleekly edited action sequences, it’s a heavily stilted one.
Before it starts to sound like I scoff at the military, let me be clear: my point is not that the Navy SEALs (the real ones, the ones the guys in this movie are when the Navy isn’t making them perform) are superfluous. Nor do I think they’re simply weapons, like predator drones or tanks. The SEALs are incredible people who have made the choice to become absolute masters of their profession. I’m not a military buff, but I do have a frame of reference for what I’m talking about: my father was a career Navy officer, a jet pilot, and then a ship’s captain. So I grew up around SEALs. When I was a kid, visiting my dad on his aircraft carriers, I would have dinner with these very muscular men in camouflage uniforms, all of whom I remember as warm, funny guys. My dad would tell me that they were SEALs, special forces, guys who did in real life what Steven Seagal, my favorite movie star at the time, did in the movies. I grew up with respect for these guys, and though I didn’t turn out conservative like my dad and much of the US military, I still have a large amount of that respect. So I can tell that Act of Valor does not do the SEALs justice.
In fact, it does them a disservice, not just by fictionalizing them, but by doing it with a bad movie. It seems simple enough to think that if you’re going to use the actual guys, you should tell an actual story. The story that Act of Valor tells is about a Jihadist terrorist plot targeting America, funded by a Russian billionaire arms dealer, using Mexican drug cartels as muscle. In other words, it takes every enemy of the United States and pits the Navy SEALS against them. It follows the popular wisdom — the wisdom of the Obama administration — that the SEALs are a panacea for the enemies of our freedom, that they are a catch-all alternative to engaging tens of thousands of regular infantry in the War of Terror. In reductionist, “one-man army” terms, it might as well be a Seagal movie. You have to wonder what actual SEALs will think of this film, whether or not they helped make it. Do they appreciate the current national craze that’s telling them to go in and solve all of our problems? Sure, they’re highly trained and amazing at what they do, but that doesn’t change the fact that millions of people are assuming it’s easy for them to parachute in and solve situations that could very well wind them up dead.
Still, military propaganda isn’t new. Audie Murphy was a WWII hero who started out playing himself in the movies and went on to a 30-year career in Hollywood. But by the time Murphy began in the movies, he was done with the military and had made the decision to act. The difference is, by putting the real SEALs into an artificial story (inspired by Tom Clancy and a common man’s view of military prowess) and then shooting that story like a traditional action movie, Act of Valor has forced the SEALs to “act.” Which leads them, conscious of the camera and the millions of people who will see the movie, to imitate the actors they’ve seen portraying military men in past movies. Art imitating life imitating art. Or rather, propaganda imitating commerce imitating life. Ironically, having trained actors play the SEALs might have been a more respectful way to go, if only because their performances wouldn’t have distanced us from the story.
The Navy has made it clear that it allowed McCoy and Waugh access to military resources — the big kahunas, of course, being the SEALs themselves — in order to set the record straight about actions the military has engaged in since September 11. The Navy is tired of seeing Hollywood portray soldiers as battle-scarred, jaded, afflicted with PTSD. You know, the kind of things that happen to soldiers in reality. Act of Valor has none of this, of course, being a Navy-sanctioned film (the Navy even retained final cut privileges, as well as all of the excess footage.) The SEALs in it are exactly what the Navy wants you to see — and unbelievably awkward actors to boot.