by Bill Gibron

16 February 2012

Con or considered celebration? Audiences must decide.

You’ve seen the ads. You’ve wondered aloud about the message they impart. When it opens on 24 February, the military action film/recruitment propaganda tool Act of Valor will, supposedly, offer actual on-duty Navy SEALS, utilizing live ammunition, within a fictional movie setting. Instead of relying on actors or informed consultants, directors Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh (also known as ‘The Bandito Brothers’) discovered that only the “real deal” could enliven their otherwise limited style and script. So they cast a group of current servicemen, found the few who could handle the heavy lifting of a cinematic narrative (read: characterization and dialogue) and refused the documentary approach to craft a slick, superficial war thriller. The results, when reviewed, speak for themselves.

But there is a bigger question with Act of Valor, one that turns this obvious bit of jingoistic patriotism exploitive, and a bit creepy. The film begins with a discussion with the directors. They talk about their motives and their means of achieving them. They argue for the casting, and even better, they make it very clear that no mere thespian could achieve the level of professional realism and emotional truth that these living, breathing members of the military (and their families) can. They also hope their efforts will inspire a greater appreciation for our men and woman in uniform. So far, the results have proven their point. One studio rep claims that he’s never seen such a reaction to a movie; men and woman openly weeping; audience members cheering and standing to applaud. While such statements smack of additional PR, the studio clearly had faith in this tantalizing title.
Not everyone is happy, however. At a recent press screening, an ex-Navy SEAL recruiter ‘assigned’ to see the film (in order to prepare himself for the avalanche of applicants that should come the his and the service’s way) stated that he and his brethren were actually a bit specious about the whole thing. Some are actually angry. While most appreciate the praise, many fear the film will reveal too much, giving enemy combatants and others without America’s best interest at heart to gain valuable intel and insight. In essence, they worry that Act of Valor will be a how-to in reverse, teaching anyone on the other side of a SEAL circumstance the strategies and techniques they employ. They also worry the film will glamorize what they do, eschewing the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice in order to make the job appear more ‘cool’ and ‘hip.’

Certainly, those directly involved in said world have a right to be protective. After all, their future could be affected by what Act of Valor illustrates - and since the Navy offered 100% backing of this project, they have an equal right to expect an uptick in interest. But what about filmgoers? Are they supposed to be part of some surreal experiment where reality and the dream factory of Hollywood merge and get mashed together? The story is indeed fictional (it even offers The Game Plan‘s Monique Vasquez and Drag Me to Hell‘s Alex Veadov as our heroine and villain, respectively) and centers around a standard terrorism plot (the only difference being the invention of a suicide bomber suit loaded with explosive ceramic pellets), the innovation comes from the approach.

However, the hype cannot possible match what’s on screen. If ‘live’ ammunition is being used, the question becomes where and when. After all, this isn’t a snuff film, and we do see dozens of people with bullet wounds to their chest, head, hands, and torso. Video game like scopes line up faces in their crosshairs, the resulting “pop” exploding the back of their skull in a standard cinematic injury. Buildings are riddled with holes, the side of trucks and other vehicles aerated like a kitchen sieve. During one imposing firefight, an entire jungle is leveled by heavy artillery fire. Clearly, some real ammo was used. But is it fair to tease a viewer into thinking that everything is authentic when, clearly, certain aspects of the offering are as fake as an Tinseltown take? Was anyone hurt or killed while making this movie?

It’s a question that goes to the heart of what Act of Valor actually is. If it’s nothing more than a glorified recruitment video, then why try to make it anything else? Does the inclusion of a formulaic plot make the come-on any more effective? And why not a group of unknown actors? Why pick the SEALS if all you are going to do is turn them into a collection of cliched archetypes? The documentary format - something these Bandito boys know all too well - would have suited their needs just fine. Instead, we get a weird amalgamation of legitimacy and ludicrousness. This is especially true of a last act manipulation that is so cruel it may actually be insulting to service personnel everywhere.

Like The Fourth Kind, which positioned itself as a dramatic recreation of true UFO abductions and events (which, themselves, turned out to be as real as Pamela Anderson’s breasts), Act of Valor becomes the latest in an emerging trend to try and trick viewers…into caring, into coming, into considering. The political schism in the country today is so wide that one can easily imagine a critic being called out (personally, professionally, psychologically) for not jumping on the flag waving bandwagon and giving the entire enterprise a big fat salute. Certainly, those men and women who sacrifice their lives for our safety and freedom deserve as much, or more, respect than we tend to give them. Act of Valor wants to be the ultimate celluloid celebration of all the work they do. Whether it’s successful or not will be something to consider long after the last box office receipt is collected. 

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