Bottom Line: Act of Valor is better than you may have heard.
Directed by: Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh
The Navy SEALs: Admiral Callaghan, Captain Duncan Smith, Katelyn, LCDR Rorke, SO1 Ajay, SO1 Ray, SOC Dave, SOC Mikey, SOC Sonny, SOC Weimy, SOCS Billy, SOCS Van D
When Act of Valor was released this past February, it was panned by three in every four critics. It was not this but my own views on war that prompted me to ignore the film. As I could never imagine how horrific war is, I feel strongly that those who risk their lives for our country deserve the utmost amount of respect. Whereas war-centric dramas (Flags of Our Fathers, Schindler’s List) possess an automatic capability with conveying this insurmountable honor, I see absolutely no justification for transforming such events into a popcorn-ish action movie (Black Hawk Down, the recent Red Tails). I reconsidered Act of Valor, however, after chewing over what made the film a box office success in the first place: the vast majority of the cast is actual Navy SEALs, in a story based on true acts of valor. The film is an action thriller, but if twelve (let alone any) elites could weigh the script’s reverence successfully, who’s to say it isn’t worth watching?
Act of Valor subverts expectations entirely. Unless for whatever reason you find, say, Braveheart lacking in dramatic depth, there is almost no resemblance to a video game born. Most of this is thanks to the opening twenty minutes, the crux of what sets the entire film apart from a fun-yet-shallow Jason Statham flick. There is a sweet, loving vibe in the film as we see the soldiers’ care for their families at home, as well. This utter poignancy reappears during the film’s finale, one of the most satisfyingly emotional conclusions in a war document since Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. The hour and a half in between is action, but we’ve been given enough drama to care about the characters, hence the thrilling success. The sound mixing, film editing, and (surprisingly stable) cinematography all increase the tenseness heavily.
One final note about the SEALs themselves. There are a wide variety of upsides and downsides to their appearances in the film; the idea is mixed, overall. Perhaps an even larger audience is attracted to a poster reading “starring active duty Navy SEALs” than one reading “starring Bruce Willis” or “starring Harrison Ford,” but unfortunately, their performances toll significantly weaker than those stunning actors. The script, cleverly peppered with memorable allusions and pop culture quips, works to help, but we could all agree it’s a bit difficult to not notice poor acting. The most noteworthy effect of this upright casting anomaly, however, is the ability to focus on the events actively taking place. It’s great, every so often, to not automatically bring “guess the actor” into a screening. Act of Valor is a rare case in which I could read every review it garnered and still remain confused as to why so many people were polarized. There is simply nothing mindless about an action thriller if it has some drama to support it.
Postscript: I know what you’re thinking–If you want the SEALs in a movie, why not just create a documentary? Your answer–Because there are countless examples of such as it is. We shouldn’t need to be reminded that these were, in fact, the heroes who killed Osama bin Laden; knowing of this heroic feat, thrilling (rather than relieving) us with their daily vocational efforts is almost at the point where it’s difficult to possibly thank them enough. Who knows? Maybe this could do what Top Gun did back in the late ’80s: polarize critics, but inspire hundreds of young men to join the military and become one of the next to accomplish a true act of valor.