Act of Valor may be the most troubling film of the year, if not the last few years. There’s no way to evaluate it as anything other than propaganda, making many of the narrative choices rather disturbing. Although it began as an internal recruitment film for people already in the American armed forces, the filmmakers convinced the Navy to let them turn it into a feature length film for theatrical release. This makes for an oddly paced, strangely plotted narrative filled with non-actor active duty Navy SEALs in the hero roles.
None of the SEALs are credited, ostensibly to protect their identity, but the effect is oddly dehumanizing when combined with their stilted wooden acting. It’s as if they’ve subsumed their personality and identity completely to the military completely, no longer even retaining their names. That they’re noticeably not Hollywood caliber actors isn’t a knock against the SEALs, it’s explicitly not what they’re trained to do, and they had no real choice in appearing the film as they’re acting under orders. It’s not clear if they were paid to appear in the film beyond their normal military pay, and it’s faults are certainly not on their shoulders. It’s not like they could just quit.
Opening with a white Muslim terrorist bombing an international school in Manila,Philippines using an ice cream van so that he can kill the most children possible, the film makes it very clear that subtlety has no place in this narrative. Same with character motivations, as the terrorists never make it clear what their goals are beyond killing innocent people, and hurting the American economy. That level of understanding may work on Fox News, but providing some kind of insight into the antagonists’ motives is normal in a narrative; James Bond villains are typically better developed. He has help in maybe the most antisemitic character in modern American cinema, an international Jewish businessman who seems to be funding South American drug cartels, Eastern European textile sweatshops, and inexplicably the Jihadi from the opening. Later in the film when he’s pressed to explain this, even he has no answer. Their plan is to use their global network of anti-American allies to sneak suicide bombers into the US through Mexican drug cartel controlled tunnels under the border. It’s a conspiracy so insane that it’s taken seriously by the far right wing in US politics. The SEALs only stumble onto this plot when they rescue a CIA agent who has been kidnapped and tortured by Columbian narco-terrorists. The sequence where they rescue her is the most coherent in the film, but also filled with strangeness.
Since the action scenes were originally shot to demonstrate official tactics and Standard Operating Procedure, there’s an odd lack of tension every time a battle occurs. It’s as if every pedantic complaint about the lack of realism in action films was taken seriously, and then some. The SEALs operate so perfectly that despite the attempt to be as real as possible, it feels like a videogame. Every shot is a headshot, they’re able to move unseen like ghosts, and not a moment of fear or trepidation is expressed. There are numerous shots from the first person point of view, looking down the sights of their guns which only adds to the videogame-like nature, but the moment that pushes it over the edge is when a SEAL who was shot in the head seems to self-resurrect. One moment he’s in the back of a truck with a gunshot to the face and no pulse, the next he’s alive, awake, and talking. That the CIA agent was tortured with a powerdrill so that she has wounds resembling stigmata can’t be accidental either. In this film there is a God, and he’s on the side of America.
While the SEALs are slightly dehumanized, the antagonists outside of the two villain characters are completely faceless. The ease with which they’re killed by the SEAL team makes them feel like animals being culled. As the SEALs close in on their compound, the film intercuts their actions with a shot of a spider in it’s web, trapping and killing a flying insect. Within the film, it’s only natural that these faceless foreigners die at the hands of SEALs. They’re portrayed as both a serious threat to America, and totally incompetent. Not only does this make for disturbing subtext, but it’s bad cinema. The narrative limitations of a recruiting film prevent the technical excellence of the filmmakers from shining through on an almost constant basis.
Connecting the action sequences is a story that highlights two of the white SEALs as brothers in arms, and it’s this element that might be the most troubling. One is a family man with 5 children, the other is an expectant father who deploys hoping to get back home in time for his child’s birth. The interaction between these two men is almost exclusively focused on family, and how military service is an integral part of their family life and history. On top of that is the near constant narration by one of the men, pushing the themes of blood and honor to levels that approach parody. It’s implied at one point that an old family flag carried under the body armor of one of them is what protects him from taking an RPG to the chest. As in, a rocket propelled grenade hits his chest, bounces off, and doesn’t explode.
Roger Ebert’s review contrasts the film with a documentary, Hell and Back Again, about Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris and his experiences serving in Afghanistan.
I have a feeling that the teenage Nathan Harris, who wanted to kill people, would have loved “Act of Valor.” But “Hell and Back Again,” in describing his life today, doesn’t play like a recruitment film. A great deal is made by the directors McCoy and Waugh that actual live ammunition was used in the making of their film. Actual live ammunition was also used in “Hell and Back Again.” If you asked Sgt. Nathan Harris what he thought about using live ammo in a Hollywood action movie, what do you suppose he would say? My best guess is, he would say they were damned fools.
Act of Valor’s attempt to be as realistic as possible ends up as a twisted jingoistic mess, on a similar level to the recent sci-fi tinged Air Force recruitment ads. Audiences deserve better, and the troops sure as hell deserve better.