I am not now, nor have I ever been, a United States Navy SEAL. Take that for what you will.
I am, however, a United States Marine, a former infantryman, and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Take that for what you will.
More recently, I left the warrior’s life and took up that of the storyteller. Fight choreographer, actor, weapons specialist, armorer, author, critic, probably a handful more I’m not thinking of right now. Nowadays, and likely for the rest of my days, I tell stories on a computer screen, a video camera, or onstage. Take that for.. you get the fucking point.
Act of Valor is, at least in my experience, a rather unique critter in the cinema world. It’s not the fun-loving early Michael Bay recruiting ad of Top Gun. And it definitely isn’t the sniveling bullshit of a recent Hollywood output that couldn’t put anyone in a modern American uniform without making them a PTSD-riddled victim of the Big Bad Bush or a sadistic baby-eating multiple rapist villain (or both).
Act of Valor‘s story is relatively straightforward: following an element of SEAL Team 7 along the course of a mission to stop a heavy-duty terrorism plot. I’d go so far as to say that the mission, rather than the SEALS, is the main character of the film. To call the SEALS characters may in itself be something of a misnomer: they are portrayed by active-duty SEALS, referred to and credited only by first names (which may or may not be their own. For the record, I personally don’t know, care less, and mildly doubt). We can see their faces, but watching them fade into their roles as part of a single unit is watching them as they are.
These SEALS aren’t actors. And they’re not (insofar as I can see) attempting to play themselves. They do more playing archetypes: members of a SEAL Team rather than any members in specific. This helps from the opening, as we’re spared the action movie cliches of being introduced to the team hillbilly, the team geek, and the other stock characters found in a military-based action film. There’s little to see of a three-act structure, the most bare-bones exposition and mercifully no author avatar-ish speeches on the nature of the world or some such bullshit.
The story moves from action point to action point, pausing only briefly to explain why, and always on the move. The camerawork on the fight scenes gives just enough disorientation to keep the audience unsettled, but never descending into the overedited mess that plagues so many fight sequences in recent films. What struck me was how much it did resonate with actual firefights: the audience knowing just barely enough of what the fuck was going on to keep up with the fighters. Odd angles, bad lighting, gunfire and explosions obscuring dialogue, all of it resonant with actual combat.
If I had to give a glaring exception to these scenes, it would be the soundtrack. The music distracted and took me out of the fights. Just in case anyone was wondering: up-tempo and heavy bass orchestral music doesn’t play during firefights, and that faux-Enya flute-heavy bullshit doesn’t drown out all ambient noise when people you care about die.
The film was made with the full backing of the Department of the Navy, which had final cut privileges of the film itself, and authorized showing the faces of active duty SEALS. (For the curious, this has never happened before. A SEAL’s identity revealed usually means that they’ve either left the teams or are dead). As far as OPSEC goes, the movie neither shows nor discusses actual operations. And with the Navy’s heavy oversight, I doubt classified SEAL tactics were shown. Might deliberate changes have been made? Probably. I’m not going to point any out for you.
Filming the various action scenes involved the SEALS involved planning attack scenarios, with the cameras following them, often in live-fire conditions. I’ve read at least one account of a Canon EOS 5 outfitted with an armor plating over the data card, for the express purpose of a SEAL shooting the camera in the course of a scene, leaving the footage intact.
As I write this, critics are panning Act of Valor across the country. Rotten Tomatoes currently calls the acting “stilted.”
THEY’RE NOT FUCKING ACTORS, YOU MISERABLE FLAMING BAG OF FUCKING DICKS! THEY’RE THE REAL MOTHERFUCKING MCCOY! GROW A FUCKING GENDER-IDENTIFIABLY APROPOS SET OF FUCKING GONADS AND MOTHERFUCKING RECOGNIZE THAT!!!!!!!!!!!
Some particular acts of dumbassery below, with responses.
“Employing Navy troops as stars is a clever idea for an action thriller. But the soldiers’ awkward line readings are glaring enough to distract from the potency of the story.” – Claudia Puig, USA TODAY
They’re sailors, not soldiers. Since you’ve ignored that little detail, I’m not surprised you haven’t figured out that they’re not actors.
Roger Ebert spent a paragraph bitching about how he can’t tell performers from characters. The grand high pooh-bah of film criticism, completely missing the point. Stellar.
If I had nothing else good to say about this film, I would praise it for simply allowing modern-day warriors to BE fucking heroes, even though they’d likely kick the ass of anyone who called them such to their faces. The Rotten tomatoes consensus did the most to piss me off, claiming that “a jingoistic attitude that ignores the complexities of war.”
Well, fuck me, RT. But forgive me for reading “ignoring complexities of war” as “not having U.S. service members snivel in their skivvies the way my latte-sipping wannabe intellectual self does at the very fucking thought of coming close to having to do what they do on a regular basis.” Blow me.
I was asked when I came back from the theater how close the battle scenes were to actual firefights. Shy of the music, I’d have to say pretty damn close. Not in the exact details of tactics or sound or movements, but in little details that I can best describe as “could have been.” Little details like gloves chosen and worn by personal preference. One character, in a single shot, had a twitch in their cheek. I remember having an identical one. The little things resonated heavily.
But then again, I’m not a regular audience member. I’m part of the .45% (look it the fuck up). I’m someone in the industry who is sick and fucking tired of being shown on-screen as a monster or a helpless victim time and fucking time again.
In an ideal world, something like Act of Valor might open some eyes. I’m a bit more cynical than that. I saw this film in a packed house opening night, with applause at the end. The spell was broken by some young punks taking a few chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and some shit-talk about Obama (I wanted to get through the day without hearing about his sorry ass. Oh fucking well). I watched the silhouettes of the punks walking by, one of them with an empty Gatorade bottle…
..And my mind’s eye saw another group of lanky young men with short hair, laughing at some stupid shit or another before business had to be gotten down to.
I can dream of an ideal world, can’t I?