Real American Heroes, by Patrick Felton
Cynicism is way too easy for a film like Act Of Valor. The concept of a film starring active duty Navy Seals playing active duty navy seals is sure to rub some people the wrong way. After years in two unpopular wars, the portrayal of “American man as lauded killing machine” still sits uneasily with the psyche of many. Truth be told, the case can be made that this film is nothing more than a feature length commercial for the Navy.
Hollywood has been here before. Hollywood has long since proved that it can pander to our nationalistic sensibilities without sacrificing quality. Go back and look at those early 40s Warner Brothers films like Sergent York, Air Force, or even the Columbia Frank Capra movies, and you find classics which assert the necessity and primacy of our armed forces. While nobody is ever going to argue that Act Of Valor is as good as Yankee Doodle Dandy, its a pretty damn interesting film. Whatever you feel about the politics at play, the result is a frequently engaging while never quite coherent film.
Act Of Valor follows actual Navy Seals as they try to rescue an operative from the hands of a cartel of very bad people. After we witness what is a surprisingly grim torture sequence of the female operative, we watch the team assemble and get to work, and carry out their mission.
The first thing you notice in this film is the over-saturated visual style. Director of Photography Shane Hurlbut (We Are Marshall, Semi-Pro) proves himself to be a bit of a secret weapon on this project. His swift camera style and brilliant color photography is reminiscent of Tony Scott or Paul Greengrass films. However, there’s a certain fluidity to the camera work that puts you on edge. We can go from idyllic jungle paradise to chaotic war zone in a fraction of a second. Its hard to watch a film like this and not think of The Hurt Locker or Katherine Bigelow in particular. Numerous standout visual sequences flower the first 40 minutes including two skydiving set-pieces, one shot in the dead of night. One explosion in particular late in the third act mirrors the opening of The Hurt Locker perhaps too closely.
The second thing you notice is the Marines themselves. There’s no mistaking that these aren’t Hollywood actors. They move, look, and talk like servicemen. Not surprisingly, they underplay dramatic sequences, often to great effect. They never lose their cool, even in the most intense of battle, and the fact that the characters are often indistinguishable adds to the hive mentality. Their presence provides a verisimilitude that makes some of the films over reaching dramatics feel more grounded than it would otherwise.
Without ever explaining the characters, we get a strange window into the psychology of a Navy Seal, if only in their methodology and procedures. They speak in military jargon that they are comfortable, so they have no need to explain it to the audience. They see themselves not acting out of heroism as much as doing what is asked of them, whether it is to fall upon the figurative sword or the literal one. Regardless of political view, its hard not to come out of this film without being moved and impressed by what Navy Seals do.
The film is at its best when its bucking traditional narrative for a more formalist approach to combat. A decade after Black Hawk Down, we’re used to seeing this sort of disoriented guerrilla warfare. While it may not be the loudest gunfire in the movie, it may be the most. Whoever was doing the sound for this movie was working overtime. At one point, I had to go to the bathroom, and when I was getting back, the officers were still shooting the same gun turret.
On a pure formalist level, the immersive experience of watching the Navy Seals drop themselves into this situation without the visual context that you would seen in a Bond or Mission Impossible film sucks you in. While never committing to a single visual reference point, the battle sequences themselves are visceral, and weaves in the high tech target opticals commonplace in games like Modern Warfare. We see the culmination of instant decision=making with incredibly high stakes.
As the film reaches the second act, it starts to venture into a more traditional narrative, where it falls flat on its face. The film claims to be inspired entirely by actual Navy Seal missions. However, its hard to imagine these scenarios weren’t composited down by scribe Kurt Johnstad to the point where they scarcely resembled their inspiration. After the satisfying initial rescue mission, we’re treated to a third act which found a way of weaving Colombian FARK separatists, Mexican drug lords, and Islamic jihadists into one incoherent mess. There is at least one scene between two of the targets where the dialogue is less James Bond predictable than it is Austin Powers laughable. Another scene sees an interrogator taking absurd measures to articulate the fact that he wouldn’t dream of torturing his prisoner (as you know, the only people who are allowed to torture people are bad guys and Jack Bauer.) By the time we get to the final battle scene, the novelty of the whole endeavor has worn off.
What’s remarkable about this approach is that it never glorifies the process of the mission, which clearly involves a lot of killing. It portrays war as awful, terrifying, and damn hard work. It could be seen as a pro war film; rather it may just be a pro warrior film. The film is framed by a narration of one soldier reading a poem by the Native American chief Tecumseh which may sum up the film’s ethos about its warrior protagonists:
So live your life so the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion;
respect others in their views, and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.
Seek to make your life long and of service to your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.