Act of Valor
Billed as “the most realistic action movie ever”, Act of Valor started life as a recruiting video for the United States military, highlighting the exploits of Navy SEAL and other special operations teams. I know that it might be slightly unfair to expect much from a movie with such a purpose, but they’re distributing it widely so I see it as fair a target as any other mainstream movie. And as a mainstream movie it’s just not very good.
A CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) undercover in Costa Rica has been kidnapped, and the SEALs must retrieve her safely. After she has been recovered, it is learned that the Ukrainian-born drug smuggler, Christo (Alex Veadov) who had her abducted is working with his childhood friend, now called Muhammed Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle), a Jihadist Chechen — no, I’m not sure those really go together, but whatever — to smuggle ceramic explosive vests into the United States for a string of suicide bombings. This, of course, entails another sequence of missions to build intelligence and foil the plot.
The core cast is made up of “active-duty Navy SEALs”, whose full names are obviously not released, and whose backgrounds are almost certainly fabricated. This also accounts for their less-than-stellar delivery; I’m ambivalent about dinging them for this, since they probably comport themselves in action more realistically, but would professional actors really do all that badly, especially if trained by such competent advisors?
And maybe it’s not really their fault, anyway. It’s just as likely the fact that the dialogue they’re supposed to mouth is wooden at its best. I think we can safely lay the worst of the florid, testosterone-dripping prose in 300 at the feet of Kurt Johnstad. On the other hand, the professionals aren’t exactly great either. Veadov, in particular, doesn’t seem to know whether Christo hails from Odessa by the Black Sea or Little Odessa by the East River, judging by his varying accent.
The realism of the action is a debatable point. I have no reason to doubt that Navy SEALs really do undertake missions similar to these, but the presentation is highly cinematic. It jumps chaotically between vintages, including one inspired by first-person-shooters that quickly gets tiring.
But even if the action is realistic in the details, the context raises some questions. The movie is built around a lot of set pieces — lots of parachuting, stealthy marine approaches, and rocket-fueled chases — but it plays out over a much longer time-frame than might be apparent unless you pay attention to the one SEAL’s wife’s growing belly. These missions are the high points, but there’s a lot of unglamorous work carried out by the rest of the military (or contractors). Which raises the central problem of recruiting videos: you are not going to be a Navy SEAL. A movie like this can get a hot-blooded teenage boy — and I do mean “boy”; women are peripheral at best, here — excited, but it feels more than a little like bait-and-switch.
And the biggest lie is the oldest one: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Whatever honor there is in a willingness to give one’s life in service to one’s country, there is nothing sweet or fitting in actually dying. We may mourn, but to hold up death as a glorious and praiseworthy end endorses martyrdom, not honor. A man who will lay down his life for his comrades-in-arms is indeed a Big Damn Hero, but so is the analyst who finds ways to run convoys without any IED casualties. Where is that man’s — or woman’s — glory? No, “valor” is what counts and what determines a man’s worth.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.