dirs: Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh
Act of Valor, presumably, refers to a specific act of conspicuous bravery above and beyond the usual, everyday bravery people exhibit. The heroes on display here, we would guess, commit these acts on a second-to-second basis. They live and breathe valour, as they are warriors of the highest calibre dealing out and embracing death for the protection of all good people everywhere. Well, at least of good Americans everywhere.
The only act of valour on our part is the potential willingness to hand money over for what is essentially a curious recruiting product meant to remind us of nothing else so much as USA! USA! USA!
People have shelled money out, though, a lot of money. This movie has more than made its money back already. And yet you’d not call most of what happens here a movie, per se.
It’s more like a very serious training video, one with a great deal of verisimilitude (I’m guessing, because I’ve never been a Navy SEAL myself as yet, though, you never know, there’s always time). It’s also very mindful of the aesthetics of first person shooters (computer games where the field of view is first person, and a weapon is ever present as you ‘walk’ through a three-dimensional environment), replicating the visual image continuously, to make the audience feel not like they’re there themselves, but that they’re playing the game they’re watching.
The main claim to fame of this flick is not that the footage of fire fights and such are real, but that the people performing them, or that are taking part in high altitude parachute jumps, or stealthily using mini-submarines to infiltrate locations are real Navy SEALs. These Real Navy SEALs act the way you’d expect Real Navy SEALs to act: fine in full combat gear with a weapon in their hands, but at a grunting loss when they have to get through dialogue that would make a Gascoigne cheesemaker wince with the sheer cheesiness of the dialogue.
I don’t begrudge them that. All of us are more natural when there isn’t a camera in our faces, and when we aren’t woodenly cracking jokes about our platoon member’s haircuts or their upcoming baby daddy status. These guys aren’t actors, after all. The filmmakers are trying to do a bunch of things at the same time: give the audience an idea of what these men face and what they’re capable of, construct some kind of plot to hang these action set pieces off of, have dialogue that isn’t just the functional stuff that chugs the plot along, and to give us a sense of what these guys are like when they’re not on a mission.
The last would be the most important if the flick needed or wanted us to get to care about the characters. But these guys aren’t characters, in the dramatic sense. They’re the real deal, and they’re carrying out what look like ‘real’ exercises for our benefit, and certainly not theirs. We’re not meant to ‘care’ about what happens to them so much as care about what they can do.
I’m not saying this is in any way a documentary. It’s not, and there are a bunch of actual actors in the film, the ones who have to deliver most of the dialogue that doesn’t sound wooden and stilted like Pinnochio walking around on a hardwood floor in stilts. The story is purely fictional, so fictional in fact it sounds like Tom Clancy’s next book. He’s probably hiring someone to rip it off and write it for him as we speak.
As much as I loathe the paranoid ra-ra world Tom Clancy conjures up, that’s not a problem here either. The plot has to conjure up specific boogiemen (Chechen and Philippine jihadi terrorists, Mexican cartel gunmen and general Russian perfidy), place them around the world, and get these SEAL chaps to those places so they can fuck the enemy up in utterly professional and dauntless manners.
If this sounds as well like the plot of one of the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games, well, it’s a template, and it plays out almost identically like that, right down to the frenetic escapes, silent sniper kills, last minute rescues and one-dimensional characters in a three-dimensional space.
A horrific act of terrorism at a school in the Philippines by a ne’er-do-well called Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle) reveals a link betwixt his awful, bearded self and a Russian smuggler who calls himself Christo (Alex Veadov). This is figured out by a poor CIA agent who get’s kidnapped by christo’s henchmen for her troubles. Kidnapped and tortured, mind you. Yes, the villains do the torturing in this flick, not the noble American sources saddened by the fact that they’ve been lugging all this water and this board around without getting to use either.
The link leads to a plan to smuggle murderously suicidal idiots into the States to unleash these very stylish vests that are virtually undetectable, and which could hurt a lot of people. American people.
So the SEALs, after getting to have a surf and a beach party with all their families present, put their game faces on, and start to seriously take care of business. We’re not given the names of the SEALs, but there’s two main guys, one called Lieutenant Rorke and another guy who’s not Lieutenant Rorke. They’re meant to be the ones the audience relates to the most. Lieutenant Rorke is the one who’s wife is pregnant, and who delivers these somewhat stirring, somewhat frightening voiceovers about his father, also a warrior, and his grandfather, who fought in WWII. So much of this speechifying is delivered with grim seriousness, with a philosophical bent that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bushido / samurai code of less recent Japan. Death, or dying nobly, is praised to the highest heavens. It’s less a speech from Henry V, and more Complete Idiot’s Guide to Killing, and then Dying, for Your Country.
When these guys attack, they know exactly what they’re doing. These scenes, now that I think more about it, are less a training video, and more an assertion that these guys cannot be denied, cannot be deterred, and are the most competent and technologically advanced. They look about as real, and yet ‘amateurish’ as you could ever hope for. The reason for the quotes on amateurish is because it’s not amateurishly filmed (cinematographer Shane Hurlbutt) knows how to shake a camera, and also how to get screamed at by Christian Bale, but made to look like the camera is on the helmet or shoulder of one of the SEALs, much of the time. It’s meant to enhance the feeling that we’re in the thick of it, and it works.
When the snipers are taking out targets from miles away, and a SEAL is ready to catch the target as they fall, fall, fall for the last time, to avoid the sound of the body splashing, you get this scary goosebump feeling, because you know it’s not just something they thought up, and probably something these chaps have done several times.
The other technological stuff, like small gliders used for an eye-in-the-sky instant reconnaissance, and seeing how they do what they do without the narrative storytelling / filmic editing or sequencing makes it look as ‘real’ as it’s ever going to get outside of actual combat. In some ways I worry that the kinds of types planning attacks on America the Beautiful, America the Brave, will use this as a training manual themselves, and study stuff like this in order to develop countermeasures or to better protect themselves from these kinds of special ops chaps.
And that could happen even if the opposite was the intention: to make these self-same fundamentalist shitbird believe, “Don’t even think about it launching jihad against Us, because These Guys will put a thousand bullets between your eyes before you’re even close to finish jerking off to pictures of henna-coloured, eyeliner wearing goats with comical beards”.
If that’s at all interesting to you, then Act of Valor is your kind of America? Fuck Yeah! propaganda. Perhaps propaganda is a bit harsh. It’s definitely filmed with the straight-ahead kind of fervour and obliviousness to any political or societal complexities that you find in recruitment videos, generally played to low-income types in order to get them to volunteer. Act of Valor