Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
While Act of Valor is certainly ripe for negative criticism, it has somewhat unfairly become a punching bag for critics. One drum that is getting beat too often is that the movie feels like little more than a “recruitment poster.” Yes, that’s true, but it’s not incidental — mostly because it began as a recruitment video. Ultimately, whether or not you find reason to appreciate Act of Valor comes down to whether or not you are willing to accept it for what it is: an action movie that is primarily concerned with being a tribute to military soldiers who are willing to sacrifice their lives for others. Toward that end, Act of Valor is not the total embarrassment that some critics say it is — though its limited purpose may prove ultimately unadmirable in some respects.
What started out as a recruitment video soon turned into an action movie about dealing with modern jihadists. Even though the project turned into a full-length fiction film, McCoy and Waugh maintained a strong desire to use real SEALs instead of professional actors. To be blunt, the acting is horrendous when there is dialogue to be delivered. But it seems the directors knew this going in and had no intention of creating anything but a movie driven by action setpieces. When the SEALs are performing their rescue missions, Act of Valor is absorbingly effective. But when they are not, don’t expect much from the movie other than hokey voice-over narration and a lot of military jargon.
Some defenders of the film’s acting have asserted that it managed to work because it felt “authentic,” but that just isn’t the case. Act of Valor does shoot for a sense of authenticity with its action setpieces, military jargon, and “real-life” Navy Seals, but the timing and delivery is anything but authentic. Most of the exchanges feel like scripted back-and-forth readings akin to the well-meaning but inexperienced church play volunteer.
These limited parameters and unique origins have brought us a movie that works well as a patriotic ode or a propaganda tool — and by “propaganda,” let’s just say I mean “the particular doctrines or principles propagated by an organization or movement” (in this case, the United States Military). Which is not necessarily meant as a swipe, but it’s just a fact that Act of Valor has no real interest — again, perhaps because of its limited aims and approach — in depicting fully realized characters. As Roger Ebert put it in his uniquely fair review: “We don’t get to know the characters as individuals, they don’t have personality traits, they have no back stories, they don’t speak in colorful dialogue, and after the movie you’d find yourself describing events but not people.”
Indeed, even if I grant the movie’s sense of itself as propaganda, Act of Valor still often feels too much like an uncomplicated war video game. This includes relatively blank characters, the lack of moral subtlety involved in acts of war, video game-looking graphic introductions for the characters, first-person perspective, and a proclivity to provoke reactions that are less sorrowful about the effects of war and more eager to praise military tactics as “cool.” Not that this seems to be discontinuous with the filmmakers’ goals: a trailer for the movie was marketed on the official website of the extremely popular video game Battlefield 3. I admire the tactical skill and effort of these SEALs, but offering a presentation not dissimilar from the latest Call of Duty is perhaps too heavy-handed. It has a few moments of attempted emotional honesty, but it’s mostly ineffective given the utter lack of concern for character development.
Act of Valor is a fairly effective action movie that is clearly intended as a tribute to the United States Military and its servicemen and women. If you understand that it’s not anything resembling art or what commonly characterizes the purposes of filmic storytelling, then McCoy and Waugh’s effort offers some engaging action sets and functions, in its way, as a cute tribute to those serving in the military. Don’t come expecting the hard questions and subtleties of war, but instead expect self-reverential lines to the tune of “here’s to us and those like us, damn few,” or the suggestion that being “dangerous” is “sacred.”
It’s not Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down, or Band of Brothers. And it doesn’t aim to be. But I can’t help wondering if these more subtle, complicated works of art actually function as better honorary tributes to our military service members than Act of Valor is capable of being. While Act of Valor is content to pay tribute to a warrior ethos that is perceived to be distinctly and nobly American, these other, more nuanced films are willing to pay tribute to the soulful questions regarding what it means to be human — questions that may complicate the virtues of America’s purposes or the identity of “heroes” and “enemies” in a war. An honest concern for the emotional and moral turmoil that soldiers experience in wartime pays better tribute to their sacrifice because it would humanize them — and the countries they represent — in all of their potentiality for good and evil. This total honesty can only add emphasis to the truly valorous moments of a nation and its natives.