Act of Valor
Have you ever been caught completely off guard by a movie and thought, “Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that before!”?
Well, that was Act of Valor for me.
The twist in this action picture about Navy SEALs tracking down globe-trotting badguys to prevent a terrorist bombing on U.S. soil is that the SEALs are played by… actual Navy SEALs. On active duty. Uncredited (at the time of release). Only a handful of professional actors appear in the film, and in supporting roles.
But this twist is not what makes the film unique. Instead, as the action unfolds, you never get the sense that something absolutely ridiculous (Mission: Impossible), leaden (The Expendables), or overly-kinetic (Bourne or anything Statham) is going to happen. If bad guys are gonna get taken out, it’s going to happen quick, and the SEALs are going to move on, fast. If something blows up, it’s going to happen… once, and the SEALs are going to move on, fast. If something technologically sophisticated is required, we’re going to see bits of it—it won’t be belabored and shown off—and the SEALs are going to move right along, fast. The amount of ground covered in Central America, the Ukraine, the South Pacific, and Mexico (among other places) is truly astonishing.
Yes, this film originated as a recruitment film sponsored by the Navy—and yes, it still has that flavor. (How could anybody NOT be impressed by what’s demanded of these men, the stoicism and courage with which they carry out their missions, and the tools put at their disposal?) But collateral damage is not exactly glossed over here. Defenders and critics of military tactics alike can trot out this film as Proof Positive of whatever tenet-of-the-day is being touted. The film is simultaneously inspiring and disturbing, and greatly so.
Do we really understand the violent waves that crash upon our shores each day, but almost never wash over us thanks to the breakwaters built on the blood of our soldiers? Do we have any appreciation for the level of violence perpetrated on our behalf, and against us? Do we know what safety really means? How many SEALs do you think have died to protect this country over the last ten years?
What we see in Act of Valor is entirely credible, and gut-wrenching. Two major thoughts struck me as I was watching: First, if I don’t express gratitude for the sacrifices that our service members make, there’s something wrong with me. Second, if other countries did on our soil what we do on theirs, we’d consider it an act of war—and there’d be hell to pay.
And, well, any way you slice it, there is hell to pay. To a certain extent we have our own selfishness and safety-lust to blame for the situation. It’s great to be an American—I don’t think the vast majority of us really understand quite how good we’ve got it—but if you’ve spent much time abroad, it’s also easy to see how many of the world’s economic and political woes are collateral damage of American and Western policy. So the piper must be paid. And at the same time, hatred and retribution can never be blamed on someone else; they are always a choice for which every one of us is personally accountable.
The narrative and emotional tension in the film, however, arises from a narrative device in which one member of a particular squad of SEALs—we aren’t quite sure initially which member—writes a letter to the son of one of his fallen comrades… and again, we aren’t sure which of the squad is going to die. Is the device strained? Yes, but no much that I minded it. I think, in light of everything, the emotions and ideas expressed in those words are earned.
This isn’t entertainment, per se. Consider it an education, and an eye opener. It should make you think, maybe cry a little, and maybe get a little sick to your stomach.
Act of Valor is available to stream online at Amazon, among many of other places. If you find someplace to rent the DVD or Blu-ray, the special features and commentary are well worth your time as well!