It’s not unusual for a war movie to feature military weapons, equipment, or hardware made available by the Pentagon. But the American military’s ultimate weapon has always been the training and skills of it’s people. Act of Valor showcases the Navy SEALS, whose skills, training, and courage make them among he smartest and deadliest weapons in America’s arsenal. To do this, eight actual Navy SEALS were persuaded to accept uncredited (And unpaid) roles - playing Navy SEALS. The result is a unique movie that lays down a new marker for technical realism and high octane thrills in the action/war genre.
The setup is simple enough. A SEAL team is assigned to rescue a CIA officer who has been abducted by narcoterrorists in South America. What follows is a thrilling, edge of your seat, adrenaline rush of a rescue that will go down as an action movie classic. But the mission doesn’t end there, it’s just beginning. A cell phone seized in the narcos’ camp contains information linking a top level drug trafficker to a jihadist cell planning a major strike on American soil. The SEALS are tasked to hunt down the jihadi leader before he can get his team of suicide bombers and their explosive vests into the United States.
The action scenes in this movie must be seen to be believed. To borrow a military term, Act of Valor doesn’t stage a battle, it begins kinetics. Not only do we see a wide assortment of real world military hardware, we also see quite a bit of real world military tradecraft, and a number of touches rarely seen in war movies, such as liberal use of tracers. Also adding to the realism is the dialog. The SEALS in this movie don’t take time out to talk about what they’re doing so that everything can be spelled out for the audience. They speak to each other as they would in real life. This doesn’t present a problem, since, when a SEAL reports an “enemy QRF approaching from the north”, the audience can easily figure out that more bad guys are approaching, even if not everyone knows what QRF stands for. But the effect is to fully immerse the audience in the action, and it avoids slowing down the story with needless explanations. To borrow another military phrase, Act of Valor maintains a high tempo of operations.
If the analogy isn’t pushed too far, Act of Valor can be a bit like a reality show with live ammunition. The SEALS in this movie aren’t professional actors, and at times it shows, but they’re interesting and naturally charismatic, and they give it their all. It’s been said that in acting, you need to concentrate on thinking what the character you’re playing is thinking, not on feeling what they’re feeling. Either someone gave this advice to the SEALS in this movie and they took it, or they figured it out on their own. Their dialog is clearly aimed at each other and not at the audience. The pace and feel of the dialog during the briefings and battle scenes feels realistic and natural. When a SEAL questions a captured drug lord, it’s understood that he’s putting on a performance, but the performance is for the prisoner’s benefit, not for the audience, and he doesn’t strut and preen for the camera the way that the actors on, say, a TV cop show would. The difference is subtle, but noticeable. When the SEALS are preparing to rescue the CIA agent, a briefer tells them “These people are savages, so we have to assume she’ll be nonambulatory. You’ll have to have a way to carry her out.” That sentence, and the matter of fact way it’s delivered, sounds and feels right. At times, you really do feel like a fly on the wall.
There have been some complaints about Act of Valor. One of them is that it reveals too much about SEAL methods, and that the SEALS should not assume so high a profile in the media. I take no position on this issue. Whether the movie should have been made is debatable, but the fact is that it has been made, and audiences will love it. The other complaint is that the movie is too heavy handed, that it is steeped in patriotism and not irony, and that the villains are too real world and politically incorrect. (No the critics don’t put it quite that way, but that’s what they mean) It is said that the characters aren’t deeply developed, and that the SEALS in this movie aren’t as polished and proficient in their acting as professional actors would be. To which I offer the following answer.
Maybe mainstream Hollywood could have handled some aspects of this movie a little better, but the point is that they chose not to do so. For years, Hollywood has chosen to depict people in the military as victims or sociopaths. For years, Hollywood has made movies about America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were simply anti-American Left wing political screeds, and the money they lost on these films exceeds the GDP of some Third World countries. For years, Hollywood has refused to depict American troops heroically unless they were refighting World War II or fighting a fantasy enemy (Independence Day, Battle: Los Angeles, and the forthcoming Battleship) For years, Hollywood has seen themselves as globalistas, and made movies for a global, rather than an American, audience. (The upcoming remake of Red Dawn has America invaded by North Korea, not China, to avoid offending the Chinese.) Hollywood used to make movies like Act of Valor. Now it won’t. But when I went to see it, it got an ovation from the audience at the end, and how often does that happen? Maybe the most remarkable thing about this remarkable movie is not what it tells us about the Navy SEALS, but what it reveals about just how much Hollywood has changed.