Do you play video games, in particular first-person shooters? These include games such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, so on and so forth? I ask this because the connections between those kinds of games and the latest film Act of Valor (2012) had been swirling around by the time I got to view it. The similar traits are clear: military and armed forces deep in the middle of special operations, where men do courageous things in the midst of intense battle. I understand what directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh (along with writer Kurt Johnstad) wanted to do: present these individuals and come as close as they possibly could to reenacting missions that have happened in real life (an opening title screen says as much). However, while there is much to admire, from their intentions to the very people they put on screen, the film falters from a number of cinematic missteps, resulting in a film that feels all too much like an episodic, real-life version of a video game.
The first misstep is in regards to the casting of the film. This may seem odd, seeing as the advertising campaign frequently reminds us that the film stars actual, active duty Navy SEALS. You may be wondering why it would be wrong to cast real-life soldiers to play pretty much an altered version of who they really are, and that’s understandable. On one side, in regards to military technique and combat skills, there is no questioning their authenticity. Each of the men has a weightiness and visible veneer that could only come from being out there in the field. They move together in perfect sync, using their equipment and talking to each other with a naturalness that years’ worth of training helped produce. A bit of trivia says that during certain scenes, real life rounds were used in shootouts, and I don’t doubt one bit that that was the case. When they are required to be soldiers is when the main characters of the film work believably well. The issue comes when they are required to do everything else.
And that’s why I would probably have preferred actors playing soldiers than soldiers trying to act, because when each of the main characters puts their gun down and tries to play an actual character, the film fails. Their lack of acting experience shows through, badly. When characters talk, they have a kind of monotone delivery that makes it appear as though they are reciting words off of a page rather than expressing an actual thought. It does not help when large portions have voiceover narration, because continuously hearing dialogue and seeing the men perform scenes they are not comfortable with takes us out of the reality of the film. Needless to say, that’s not a good thing. Except for maybe a scene or two of comedy, I found everything between the battle scenes to be lackluster, and was anxious for the film to move on.
But that’s not to say that the battle scenes were all that impressive, either. The filmmakers made a crucial mistake when they decided to film the movie in that hand-held, unnecessarily shaky way of shooting. This has been one of the biggest problems (if not THE biggest problem) that modern action films incorporate; having quick cuts and endlessly rocking the camera does not help in capturing action. Because what is on screen is so chaotic, we lose our bearing on what is happening in the scene. The sense of spacing and continuity is gone, and what’s left is an unyielding amount of kineticism with no base; it’s pretty much all color and light flashing in front of us. Another issue here is when the film routinely shifts to the viewpoint of the soldier, and we are literally seeing what they are seeing in the middle of battle. Some people may wonder why the comparisons to video games have been made here; it’s because that perspective is identical to what people see when playing a first-person shooter! If they wanted us to experience what it was like to be a Navy SEAL in the midst of battle, they should have at least given us an opportunity to show what’s happening and how it’s affecting these men. There are certainly moments when that happens, and because of that those moments turn out to be the best. But the film falls back so often on that overused technique that the action scenes are not as intensely impactful as they could have been.
I have gone this far and have not even mentioned what the plot of the film is. I disregarded explaining the story because the filmmakers apparently disregarded writing a meaningful story to tell. Instead, what we get is episodic sequences where the soldiers are put into combat situations with a specific goal in mind, and must extract themselves from the area before enemy reinforcements come to overwhelm them. There is a circular fashion to how each scene is laid out (about three missions begin with the men parachuting out of an airplane and end with them hauling ass with bullets flying above their heads). Oh sure, there’s a thinly threaded story about a kidnapped CIA agent (Roselyn Sanchez) and her connections to the dangerous terrorist Karimov (Dimiter Marinov), who is hell bent on causing destruction, but will anyone who walks out of this movie point to the plot as being one of the film’s strong points? I would guess not. What is required of the viewer is that we are the good guys and they are the bad guys, no questions asked (oh, and don’t let me get started on the lovely depiction of Filipinos as mindless, suicide-bombing drones. I’ll leave that for another day).
Even with all the criticisms that I have with Act of Valor, I’m not going to go out of the way and say that I hated the film, because I didn’t. I do admire the apparent earnestness in what McCoy and Waugh wanted to do. There is no debate: these are brave men, and what they have chosen to do as their occupation has most certainly saved lives. I don’t doubt their honor—they are certainly braver than I am. I just wish their bravery was captured in a better film. If McCoy and Waugh wanted to make a movie that was as true to life as could possibly be, it may have been a better idea to make a documentary instead. Restrepo (2010), a film made by directors Tim Hertherington and Sebastian Junger, is a far more effective portrait of soldiers and the sacrifice they put themselves through to better the world. I would point anyone to that film to see what this film was trying to accomplish.
Final Grade: C-