We all think we could probably be actors, if it came down to it: if someone were to give us a script, some time to prepare, and an emotion to convey, we could probably do it as well as Channing Tatum, even if we wouldn’t be Brandos immediately. We’re probably completely wrong: put in front of a camera, we’d likely be stiff and unnatural, being as easy to spot in a cast of professionals as Pee-Wee Herman was at the end of Big Adventure. That is, at least, the realization that one comes to when watching Act Of Valor, which boldly decides to use actual U.S. Navy SEALs (uncredited and unpaid) in most of its roles, despite the fact that none of the men are actual actors (having had better things to do over the past decade than read An Actor Prepares, presumably).
It is a filmmaking choice that fits with the goal of the film, about which we’ll talk more later, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t jarring to see these men speak on-screen. The quality of the acting on display in Valor is almost endearingly bad, the kind of close-your-eyes awfulness that one associates with mattress salesmen performing a skit in their first local commercial, if said mattress salesmen knew a dozen ways to kill you with a toothpick. There are actual actors in the film, who occasionally are asked to interact with the SEALs; one winces when this occurs, as if you're expecting some kind of matter-antimatter explosion to occur.
That is the first and largest problem with Act Of Valor as an actual film; as a piece of rhetoric it is problematic in ways that are worthy of more serious consideration. It’s difficult not to call it a piece of propaganda, as the directors are former documentary filmmakers who were selected by a Navy panel to create a film to “tell their story in a theatrical narrative.” This isn’t a film that organically grew from a writer’s desire to communicate what soldiers experience on their missions and in their lives, but was apparently created wholesale by a branch of the military as a kind of advertisement for its special forces.
Whether that idea makes you feel uncomfortable or not will likely depend on your knowledge of it. This is a film that tips its cap to the reality of warfare, with the acknowledgement that sometimes soldiers don’t come home to their wives, but also stridently avoids any real engagement with political ideas in favor of making war seem as much like a football game as a real thing. The enemies here are Chechen religious fanatics, which conveniently avoids offending anyone in the Middle East; a soldier actually says to a captive with information, “You’ll be treated fairly and humanely!” without even so much as a wink to the well-known existence of rendition flights and “enhanced interrogation.” The film is ultimately unable to avoid all mention of politics, though, as the terrorist plot ultimately hinges on the existence of a porous Mexican border through which suicide bombers can move undetected. Expect this film to figure heavily in political campaigns in border states in the next few years, in other words.
Even acknowledging the board-stiff acting and the iffy conception of the film, though, Act Of Valor still manages to be completely engaging and borderline awesome at times. It’s been derided as Call Of Duty: The Movie by many, and directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh play into that notion with an almost physical sense of glee. Despite the occasional injury to a member of the squadron in the film, they’re still almost supernaturally good soldiers, racking up video game-like bodycounts, complete with effortless headshots from dozens of yards away, while completing their objectives coolly and efficiently.
In fact, divorced from any other considerations on its merits, it’s tough not to acknowledge Act Of Valor as one of the better action films to come along in the last couple of years. There’s an adherence to the showmanship of Call Of Duty that is liable to lead to a lot of confused erections among the more bro-y members of the audience, along with copious amounts of fairly well-used gun-cam shots just in case you were confused about what the filmmakers were going for. It’s a movie that treads the line between showy setpieces and gritty, realistic combat encounters to a degree that is actually quite effective (whatever the term “realism” can mean in the context of a film with such a degree of rhetorical baggage). This isn’t a movie that aims for the explosions of gore of The Expendables, but its apparent reliance on actual tactics sets it apart from the infinite-ammo and slow-motion excesses of most Hollywood fare.
Act Of Valor is a movie that dares you to like it; its success will likely vary based on your acceptance of its blithe unconcern with making any kind of political message. Not every movie needs to be Rendition or Syriana or The Messenger, of course, and perhaps one could say that Hollywood does generally have a political slant in mind when crafting military-themed films, especially over the last decade of American warfare; some will find Act Of Valor a welcome corrective in that regard. Others will find that it perhaps goes a bit too far in the rah-rah, aren’t-these-guys-awesome-badasses department; there was a contingent of young men in the audience when I saw the film whose desire to see foreigners turned into clouds of pink mist became almost palpable as the film spooled on.
In the end, Act Of Valor does succeed in its obvious objective: it makes the SEALs look like amazing soldiers who sacrifice more than we civilians could ever imagine to keep America safe. That is its rhetorical aim, and it delivers its payload to a degree that its Navy overseers are likely quite pleased with. The fact that it is presented as a fiction, and that it does essentially serve as an advertisement for a branch of the military, is worthy of engagement, though. People often say something on the order of “it’s a fun movie, if you’re willing to turn your brain off,” but Act Of Valor feels like the opposite kind of experience: it can be appreciated as a straightforward action tale, but it has goals that are more covert, which require acknowledgement. It’s a movie that is not so much to think about as to come to terms with.