This is not going to be your typical movie review … which is fitting, because “Act Of Valor” is not your typical movie.
I’ve never been as conflicted about a movie, both before and after viewing it, than I have been about this one. Like you probably have, I heard about this action movie that was filmed using not actors, but real soldiers, Navy SEALs. In fact, in all the promotional materials for the film, the full names of many of these “actors” were not released. The result is a film that kept me in my theater seat through the final credits trying to internalize and understand what I had seen and how I felt about it.
“Act Of Valor” has a simple enough plot, about an elite SEALs team trying to catch a terrorist and his allies from unleashing hellish strikes on the United States mainland. But the plot is not really what makes this movie worth watching (which it is) or worth writing about. That honor belongs to the actual soldiers who play corresponding versions of themselves and their fellow members of this elite unit in the film. What they bring to us is quite compelling.
The actual combat footage is the most realistic I’ve ever seen — and not for the reasons you might think. It is the matter-of-fact, business-like fashion with which these warriors deploy on and carry out their missions that’s so real, and so unsettling. I sat there watching it play out before me and understood, maybe for the first time, what the young men and women who our nation sends into combat must become in order to carry out the missions we entrust them with.
The characters in this film go from joking about family and normal, every-day plans to switching into a kind of automatic pilot mode in order to face death and keep their minds and composure fully intatc. It is, at times, positively horrifying to see them go through that process, while at the same time it gave me a lasting respect for the men and women in uniform that goes far beyond what I felt before. And that should have been a hard thing to do, considering that my family has included members of the Armed Forces, including the Marines, Navy and Army.
The characters in this movie are the best of the best when it comes to war, and the men portraying them in this film are obviously a subset of that same group. All the missions are carried out with precision, regardless of impediments, injuries or foes. And it’s all done with a seriousness befitting the stakes, both for them personally and for our nation.
To say this movie is the perfect antidote to the testosterone-heavy but bloodless combat of a movie like “Top Gun” would be to sell this film very short. The battle sequences in this movie are simply an actual war, captured on film. It is as close as you or I will get to that without being an embedded camera man, and probably more than that because an embedded camera man would never be allowed on missions such as these.
As for the non-battles scenes, I’m sure that many viewers will complain about the line deliveries, emotional content and scripting of these moments. I must beg to differ. These scenes, to me, are just as realistic as the ones on the battle fields. Do they lack in the kinds of premeditated emotionality we expect from our war blockbusters? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Not in my book. It actually serves to make these characters more genuine and thus make me more invested in them. Besides, if we’re to be honest, none of us speak like the people we ordinarily see in military action movies, do we?
I’ve heard that this film is being praised by right-wing talking heads and conservative political commentators as the only worthy action movie because it is so “pro-American.” And commentators on the left have apparently dismissed it as just so much testosterone fueled pro-war propaganda. Both groups have missed the boat on this one.
To the right, I would explain that while definitely a film about American soldiers putting lives on the line to save their fellow citizens from harm, it doesn’t fit the gung-ho pro-war machine that they’re typically so fond of. In this movie, honor and valor … and, yes, war … come at a heavy price. It is not sanitized or explained away by hokey pandering slogans.
To the left, I would point out that this is not a film that glorifies war or presents it as something to be undertaken lightly whenever the powers that be decide there’s a circumstance somewhere on the globe that we need to change. Instead, it serves as a warning of the very real and human cost of putting the lives of these elite fighting men on the line — and not just to them, but to their families.
“Act Of Valor” is not the most proficiently acted movie about war that I’ve ever seen. Neither is it the most thoughtfully written one, or the one with the most believable plot. It is simply the most thought-provoking one, the movie that’s caused me the greatest amount of introspection about what is happening in our world and exactly how I feel about that.
The strength of the film and the reason I hope as many people as possible on both the left and the right go to see it is that it may serve to change a point of view, or at least engender respect for a different one. And really, name the last movie that accomplished that?
Contact Paul Castaneda at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.