With Alex Veadov, Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Jason Cottle, Ailsa Marshall. Written by Kurt Johnstad. Directed by Mike McCoy, Scott Waugh. Rated R (for strong violence including some torture, and for language). 101 minutes.
Are you a veteran or active duty military personnel? Then thank you for your service. Whatever issues we may have with the missions you were sent on by public officials, your bravery and dedication is appreciated and must be respected. However, that doesn’t mean we have to accept propaganda films at face value.
ACT OF VALOR is one of the most curious propaganda films ever made. It is an action movie about Navy SEALS undertaking a complicated series of missions involving international terrorism, in which the fighting men we see in the film are real. While actors play bad guys, spouses, and so forth, the actual fighting men are active duty military personnel. It’s an obvious selling point for the film and it complicates it for no good reason.
When we see our heroes rescue a kidnapped woman in Costa Rica or take out a bunch of terrorists attempting to enter the country from Mexico, we get the sense that this is what it must be like for the men tasked with such missions. One plans as much as one cans but there are no guarantees and not everyone will make it back home in one piece. Watching the film, we enter an enemy camp not knowing what’s behind the next door, just as these soldiers have to do in real life.
However, there’s real life and then there’s acting. While the quiet courage and expertise of these men cannot be denied, no one here is going to be competing for an Oscar next year. When they have to open their mouths to deliver dialogue, it becomes clear rather quickly that they are amateurs. They may be very brave amateurs with whom we entrust the defense of our country, but that doesn’t convey the ability to create a believable character on screen. Even with barely written characters, these men rarely convince us they are the people they are portraying. Their handling of weapons and tactics appears realistic, but the minute they speak, it’s amateur hour.
This wouldn’t have been a problem if the film was a documentary and we were hearing the men talk as themselves. It is asking them to enact recreations or hypothetical missions while also maintaining a character that seems too much. Some might say that’s preferable to seeing actors pretending to do what these fighting men actually do in their jobs, but it’s a tradeoff. Do you want realism in the action or credibility in the acting? By making this a drama rather than a documentary, certain expectations are raised which the film fails to deliver.
“Act Of Valor” wants us to pretend that we’re following real Navy SEALS on actual missions, but also wants to give us dramatic scenes with spouses, with conversations among enemy agents, and all sorts of things that would not be possible if this were a documentary. The result is a movie that’s a one-of-a-kind curio. You may be impressed with the action scenes, but you may also find yourself wishing they were part of a movie about which you actually cared about what was going on.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.