Act of Valor occupies a unique and singularly effective niche in filmmaking: it is a film about war featuring actual warriors playing, in essences, themselves.
That is not to confuse it with a dry documentary. This is a rousing war movie, make no mistake, in the best traditions of such films as “Blackhawk Down”, and “We Were Soldiers”. But it sets itself aside from those earlier (and, admittedly, better) war films in the level of realism it attains.
Act of Valor is set today. It is about a series of connected missions undertaken by a platoon of US Navy Seals; to thwart a terrorist from attacking Americans on our own soil.
As a series of separate combat missions, each viewed in isolation, the film offers the best and most realistic portrayal of modern “Spec Ops” missions ever seen by audiences. In fact, one has to go to “first person shooter” games, such as “Call of Duty” to get as immediate a feeling of participation, of “being there”; as the audience is treated to here. Much of the camera work is from the shooter’s point-of-view. The rounds going past the camera sound real, because they are.
The Filmmakers, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, made the decision to do something never before attempted, to my knowledge: to film real warriors doing their thing!
To add realism, they are shooting real bullets, and throwing real grenades. They meet up with, and “lock out” of a real submarine. They parachute out of real planes. No special effects, no “green screen”, no stuntmen here! Just the real deal!
As a former Special Forces Operator, I felt the old adrenaline begin to kick in, along with some very real sensory memories, watching these scenes. Particularly the first mission, in which the SEAL Team maneuvers through a jungle and out of a river to attack a target; brought back memories of similar occasions I participated in decades ago. I could feel humid dampness of the misty jungle; the rotting smell of the river mud; the water sloshing in my jungle boots. I was there again, and felt my heart racing as these SEALS enter the compound, weapons at the ready, moving on target!
This film delivers!
All that said, what doesn’t work so well is the way these scenes all connect.
First, the tempo seemed to me too quick: too many missions, in too little a space of time, with too little “mission prep” (preparation). Perhaps in the years since I was involved in Spec Ops, things have changed. But back in the day, we spent a lot of time (sometimes weeks) preparing for a mission: planning, building mock-ups, performing dry-runs, etc. We then briefed the “higher-ups”, received their critique, and either got the green light; or were sent back to the “isolation house” to revise the plan.
In Acts of Valor, the protagonists always seem to be “winging it”.
Now, they are doing a magnificent job of it. And perhaps our modern Spec Ops warriors, who have been at this game for over a decade since 9/11, are so good that they can indeed “wing it” and pull it off flawlessly. If anyone could, it would be the SEALS!
The “acting” has and will receive criticism. Deservedly. Where this film falls somewhat flat is in the interpersonal scenes and dialogue. It’s sometimes clunky and flat. Particularly the voice over, which strangely sounds a bit like Jesse Ventura!
But these are warriors, after all, not actors. So c’est la guerre!
What the audience gets is an appealing cast of real-life heroes who show us what is so special about our Spec Ops warriors: That they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They do it better than anyone, and perhaps better than its ever been done. It also give us a bit of insight into the unique culture of the SEAL Teams. When they bury a fallen comrade, the team members each in turn nail their SEAL trident badges to the top of the casket. This poignant moment captures on film an aspect of this closed society of warriors that few civilians ever get a glimpse of; and fewer would understand.
Too few. That is, apparently, one of the mottos of the SEALS.
At a time when this country and its unique culture and civilization are threatened by committed and deadly enemies around the globe, it is comforting to know that the we are shielded by the efforts and sacrifices of such men as these.
” We sleep safely in our beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf.”
These men-next-door have committed themselves to becoming the “rough men” that allow us all to sleep at night. Rent (or buy) “Act of Valor”, and honor their commitment.
Author, 1983, US Army Special Forces; in S.E. Asia