The Navy’s experiment in action filmmaking combined with propaganda yields surprisingly decent results in Act of Valor, a movie holding the distinction of featuring active duty Navy Seals in principal roles and utilizing live ammo during several of its firefight sequences. The movie is frequently dry and flat when it comes to human drama, but competently crafted and engaging when the bullets start flying. For action junkies, Act of Valor may end up being one of the better movies of the year.
So far, I’ve seen some critics deride the movie being fascist propaganda and for reprehensibly selling the military to impressionable movie goers. As if holding affection and respect for the armed services is somehow a less valid viewpoint than the bleeding heart liberalism that is so fashionable in some Hollywood circles. As if selling the U.S.military to the American public is somehow crasser than hawking Dos Equis and MacBook Pros. Some of Hollywood’s finest films of the past have been unabashedly fascist. Sergeant York, directed by Howard Hawks in 1941 and starring Gary Cooper, was also little more than a sophisticated recruitment ad for the U.S. military, and it remains a fine film to this day. John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and Hawks forged legendary careers while producing extremely conservative films.
So, putting aside any feelings I may have about what a contemporary Hollywood action movie should feel like and the values I expect it to promote, is Act of Valor a good movie? Well, Howard Hawks this is not, but the movie does represent a solid piece of action filmmaking.
The strengths and flaws of this movie lay with the casting of active duty Navy Seals in key roles and the endorsement of this production by the U.S. Navy. The principal protagonists in the movie are flat, and not entirely because they aren’t played by actors. A good protagonist needs weaknesses, vices, or shitty tendencies; it makes him or her three dimensional. Harry Callahan is a mean-spirited loose cannon, James Bond is an alcoholic womanizer, and John McClane is a dick.
The heroes of this movie, however, are completely well adjusted. We encounter our two principal protagonists early on in a bar, but they don’t drink beer on screen. Every member of the unit is married to an attractive, quietly suffering wife; those who have children have beautiful children. These guys don’t drink, tell off-color stories, curse (when not on the battlefield), or display cockiness. The main character contributes a voice-over that consists of familiar platitudes about honor and patriotism. In short, our protagonists are flawless, politically correct supermen. And they’re boring.
And therein lays the problem: how does a filmmaker ask a real life badass and national hero to portray a three dimensional character complete with shitty tendencies or attitudes? If the bulk of the movies starring Audie Murphy (look him up if you don’t know who that is) are any indication, you don’t. And even if the director(s) of this movie had somehow convinced his leads to play flawed characters, the Navy would have vetoed that decision (this movie may be rated R, but it is certainly being sold to families). Thus, the principal baddies ironically end up being more captivating than the heroes precisely because they are unrepentant pieces of shit.
The movie works best when the Seals are dispatched and on the ground. This movie probably represents the closest any production will ever get to a good Call of Duty: Modern Warfare adaptation. Particularly since the directors tend to favor a first person perspective during action sequences. Act of Valor has three major set pieces; prior to each mission, the Seals are briefed, they move into position, and then execute their orders with lethal efficiency. The violence is frenetic, but generally comprehensible. The bulk of the action registers on the screen. And it would have been a shame if it didn’t, because the Navy clearly gave these filmmakers permission to play with some devastating military hardware; sequences where live ammunition is used have a visceral quality that is lacking in most Hollywood action movies.
Most importantly, there is an authenticity to the way the action is depicted. Each combat scenario feels plausible from the locations to the way the bad guys behave to the way the Seals deal with each new threat. After decades of having my senses assaulted by incoherent, CGI-laden spectacle from Hollywood – a seemingly incessant stream of movies where supposedly highly trained combatants make stupid mistake after stupid mistake – I greatly appreciate the intelligence in the set up and execution of each action set piece. The filmmakers may be selling me propaganda, but at least this propaganda isn’t blatantly mocking my intelligence.
Non-partisan or conservative action movie junkies should find a lot to like with this movie. Anyone appalled by the fact that the Navy has essentially commissioned an expensive recruitment video won’t be able to get past that fact. Anyone looking for a compelling, well acted drama will also be disappointed. But anyone looking for a solid action movie this weekend could do a whole lot worse.