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Act of Valor

A movie directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh

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All-American Propaganda

  • Feb 25, 2012
Rating:
+1
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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.

                                                  

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April 19, 2012
Another feature-length military propaganda picture was inevitable following over a decade of expensive commercials screened everywhere from theaters to television to websites. However, this propaganda is no more repugnant for its conspicuity than movies in which grunts are humanized and heroized by spouting absurdly mawkish sentiments concerning reflections of great profundity. Malick's visually magnificent, embarrassingly schmaltzy The Thin Red Line is the quintessence of this cornball fashion, but at least 20th Century Fox hadn't the temerity to finance a film with taxpayer cash and debt issuance and sell it back to its audience.

Platoon, The Deer Hunter and especially Paths of Glory (first of at least three Kubrick masterworks) are all first-rate flicks that address the social and personal consequences of war. However, I wouldn't cite Apocalypse Now among them; Coppola's primary intention was to transpose the scenarios of Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness to modernity. Therein, the hypocrisy of officer strata and illegitimacy of the war are but a subtext (and redundant, besides) for more elevated themes. For this purpose, Apocalypse Now functions both to glorify and disparage the Vietnam War.

That Kubrick and De Palma are the only two major anglophone filmmakers known to me who depicted American soldiers as the great majority of them are - ignorant, brutish, hapless transplants from trailer parks, ghettos and cornfields to battlefields - merely suggests this country's excessive and wholly erroneous adulation of its armed forces. Your review's censure is analogous to most others I've read, but this movie was nonetheless a resounding commercial success.
In '89, De Palma's Casualties of War unsparingly depicted Vietnam-era atrocities of gang rape and murder as committed by American soldiers, and proved a minor success. Five years ago, his Redacted - admittedly not a good movie by any objective standard - portrayed war crimes deliberately comparable to the Mahmudiyah killings and was savaged by critics and even his distributor's President less for its poor quality than Da Palma's brazen temerity to simply tell the truth. Only a year later, Bigelow's The Hurt Locker was received as an enormous commercial and critical success, but its central theme is pure fallacy: contemporary war crimes are occurances not of indivdual but fraternal lunacy, routinely excused by officers whenever their underlings can destroy all evidence of their actions.

Please excuse the length of my response, but this is perhaps the most egregious of Hollywood's many nauseating trends. When a filmmaker finally documents the decades of petty, environmental and sexual abuse that military thugs and infrastructure stationed from Okinawa to Mannheim to Pisa to Uijeongbu to Aitor to Kuwaiti borderlands and hundreds of other locales worldwide have inflicted on their residents and surroundings, and finds a distributor willing to promote it regardless of prevailing biases in favor of military-industrial/Zionist/imperialist authorities, then I may be willing to pay for a screening.
 
February 26, 2012
when I saw the trailers for this, I was like.....Hmm.....real active duty Navy Seals. I almost went to see this one last night, but something stopped me. Thanks for taking the bullet on this. It is too bad that H-wood stooped to propaganda like this.
February 26, 2012
Hollywood has been in bed with the military for years, although they were most active during the start of World War II. It obviously wanted nothing to do with films that depicted the humanity, brutality, and murky morality of war (The Hurt Locker, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Green Zone, just to name a few). The Air Force got a surprising boost of confidence after the release of Top Gun; there were even reports of recruitment tables being set up outside of movie theaters.
February 26, 2012
I remember that with Top Gun. One day I will rewatch APOCALYPSE NOW. Did you like "Full Metal Jacket"?
February 26, 2012
Actually, no, I haven't seen Full Metal Jacket. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of Kubrick films I've seen all the way through.
 
February 26, 2012
Thumbs way up. I hate how they are marketing this movie; and I have no intention to pay more than a single dollar to watch some lame propaganda film.
February 26, 2012
I haven't been so angry at a movie since Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. At least that film didn't have actual 9/11 survivors cast in lead roles.
 
February 25, 2012
Good review.
February 26, 2012
Thank you. Pray I'm not chased by an angry mob with torches and pitchforks.
February 26, 2012
I will.
 
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About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #6
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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Cast:
Director: Scott Waugh, Mike McCoy
Screen Writer: Kurt Johnstad

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"All-American Propaganda"
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