Friday, February 24, 2012

'Act of Valor' is an ode to Navy SEALs

The Navy SEALs sare tough and daring, but Act of Valor falls short.

Act of Valor is an action film without professional actors, at least not many of them. Directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh use real Navy SEALs to make an unabashed ode to warrior virtues, as embodied in an elite team that finds itself in a long series of battles. These frenzied set pieces begin with and evolve from the rescue of a female CIA agent who has been captured and tortured by terrorists.

Narrated by one of the SEALs, the movie works hard to glorify the warrior spirit, and, for some, it will serve as a kind of big-screen recruiting poster, although obviously not all military personnel have the desire or ability to participate in this kind of activity.

Act of Valor follows the exploits of Bandito Platoon as it moves from one operation to the next, leaving little breathing space in between. I assume that McCoy and Waugh couldn't make a film using real SEALs unless they intended to extoll the military, so it's hardly surprising that they spare no effort in underlining the platoon's coherence and courage.

We see families left behind. We see men who know that they can't be thinking about the distractions of home when they fly into action. We see acts of selfless heroism. Moreover, we get a sense of appreciation for how such elite units (presumably an increasingly integral part of U.S. defense strategy) go about their business.

The filmmakers splay real SEAL maneuvers across a barebones narrative. There's machismo, patriotism and physical daring here, but the problem with the movie is that ... well ... it's not exactly a movie.

The script is really an excuse to march these warriors into a variety of battles with glaring, blaring explosions and lots of gunfire. (The filmmakers reportedly used live ammunition.) The SEAL characters are sketchily developed, and the movie -- never overly concerned with plot -- pits the SEALs against enemies that pose a terrorist threat.

Some of the scenes (an interrogation, for example) remind us why most features are made with real actors. There's a reason John Wayne made war movies while guys named Eisenhower and Patton fought wars. I'd have preferred to see a documentary about the SEALs. I wanted to hear real SEALs speaking their own words. I wouldn't have minded a bit of nuance here or there. But that's just me.

Now let me say something else. I tend to resent movies that engage in any kind of moral browbeating. I'm talking about movies that set up an awkward dynamic. If you don't like Act of Valor, you must hate everything it stands for -- or so this kind of unstated innuendo goes.

Get this: Not admiring Act of Valor is not the same as disapproving of Navy SEALs or denying their courage or their ability to deal with extreme difficulty. Act of Valor celebrates the valor of the SEALs, but it's as close to propaganda as movies ought to get.

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