The deeper you look into the making of Act of Valor, the more appalling it becomes. It’s not a war film, but a recruitment video – commissioned by the Navy’s Special Warfare Command as an initiative to increase the sign-up rate for the Navy SEALs. Hired to direct were Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, former stuntmen and producers of sports documentaries. In 2007, both were brought in to direct the recruitment short Navy SWCC, which documented Navy boat operators on a training mission. This gave them unprecedented access to the SEALs, whose wartime experiences inspired an idea for an action movie. The Navy got wind of it when they were soliciting patriotic producers for new recruiting videos. This came at a time, probably not coincidentally, when the military was looking to bolster its image following the unpopularity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
McCoy and Waugh proposed that real Navy SEALs be cast, as they believed it would lend an authenticity no actor could reproduce. The Navy agreed so strongly that, according to Jordan Zakarin of The Huffington Post, participation of active duty SEALs was made mandatory. Eight would be featured in major roles. What puzzles me is that, despite the fact that a SEAL’s identity must be kept secret, all those involved were allowed to show their faces on camera. They were not, however, given any screen credit; the only names listed are actual actors, most of whom were hired to play terrorists. So it seems that, when you’re starring in a feature-length recruitment video, the rules can freely be bent. Never mind the fact that it’s a matter of national security.
What infuriates me is that these men and women, who are indeed brave, are being exploited, not just by Hollywood for the sake of entertainment, but also by our government for the sake of propaganda. Their personal stories, which are undoubtedly heart-wrenching, have been reduced by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad into a series of clichés that are not only threadbare but emotionally manipulative as well. Consider a subplot involving two SEALs, both friends. One has left behind a wife who’s pregnant with their first child. The other cannot keep the news to himself, despite many requests to do so. When the father-to-be isn’t in combat, he repeatedly expresses his excitement over getting a two-week leave and going back to his wife. And let us not forget that, just before he leaves for duty, his wife urges him to be there when she gives birth. I don’t have the heart to tell you what inevitably happens to men like that in movies like this.
Their missions, no doubt harrowing, are transformed into glorified stunt spectaculars, complete with lightning-quick edits, pulse-pounding music, slow motion explosions, and lots of people getting their brains blown out onto walls. The filmmakers even find time to work in POV footage from cameras affixed to the SEALs’ helmets. What made them think that I wanted a first-person account of shooting someone to death? More to the point, how does the Navy think such footage will actually motivate people to seek out a recruitment center and enlist? Perhaps I’m completely out of touch with reality, but it seems to me that revealing the violence and bloodshed of war would do more to turn people away, to say absolutely nothing about the very real possibility of dying in the service of your country.
The plot, as it were, involves a team of SEALs deployed on a mission to rescue an undercover CIA agent in the Philippines (Roselyn Sanchez), only to discover that she’s a bit player in a global conspiracy to bring down the American government. It has already started with the assassination of the U.S. ambassador; the next step is to have followers land on American soil. Central to the sinister plot are a weapons smuggler (Alex Veadov) and a jihadist terrorist (Jason Cottle); they have gained access to a new explosive vest containing hundreds of ceramic ball bearings, making it ideal for passing through metal detectors. If the right venues are targeted, say a stadium or a shopping mall, major cities would crumble and cause national chaos.
The film is bookended with voiceover narrations, both provided by one of the two SEALs mentioned above. It’s made apparent in the opening scene that he’s writing a letter to someone. Decency prevents me from revealing who he’s writing the letter to and why. I will say this much; given the recipient, it’s highly unlikely the letter would be worded in the way it is. The real function of the narrations – and, indeed, of the entire movie – is to beat you over the head with an overtly jingoistic message that makes the war films of the early 1940s look tame by comparison. Act of Valor is reprehensible movie born of a reprehensible purpose. Speaking not just as a film critic but also as an American citizen, Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh, and the American military ought to be ashamed of themselves.