Jason Cottle in Act of Valor. (PROMOTIONAL PHOTO)
By Bernie Jablonski
Act of Valor is not a documentary, although it stars actual Navy SEALs, who only go by their ranks and first names in the credits. It puts these actual warriors in a script and situation and lets them loose to do what they do best…which is not acting, but you know what? I was absorbed into the whole experience. I cried at parts. And within two days, it had largely left my mind. Not a bad way to spend 111 minutes at a matinee for a matinee price.
The concept of the movie intrigued me, and to be honest, I am not a big military fan in the movies (although I am a big fan of The Dirty Dozen, a movie which is, frankly, morally reprehensible- though very, very, cool) and even less a fan in reality. Not that what they do is unnecessary, or wrong- at this point in humanity’s evolution, war seems to be a necessary evil. Cliché though it may be, I hate the war but do love the warriors. And as flash-bang entertainment, Act of Valor is pretty effective.
The co-directors of the movie, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, were Hollywood stuntmen who after a few decades of destroying nearly every bone in their bodies (McCoy was also a motorcycle racer), decided to try something safe like filmmaking. At its inception, the movie was a standard, action-packed, hooray-for-our-side war picture, but eventually it became a standard, hooray-for-our-side war picture with real SEALS, who brought their experience. Choreographing the intense action scenes, they also advised on and changed dialogue to make the film sound more like the dialogue of their lives. They brought authentic weapons and ammunition- live ammunition.
For the most part, this all works pretty well. The story is about a group of U. S. Navy SEALS ( the acronym, of course, stands for Sea Air and Land Teams), the Navy’s primary special operations force, employed in that most noble of causes- anti-terrorism. A select group is tasked to rescue a beautiful young doctor (Roselyn Sanchez, about as beautiful and young as a doctor can get), who is being he;ld by drug dealers in a hidden Costa Rican compound. The doctor, of course, is also a CIA agent. Upon completing the mission (more on the mission in a bit), the group discovers that the people at the compound (most of whom wind up dead, ‘natch) are but the tip of an arm of tentacles that reach across the globe and have in their grasp Cambodia, Puerto Rico, the Ukraine and the Florida Keys.
The location work is exquisite. As a matter of fact, the cinematography makes everything (especially the jungles) look so incredibly lush, or incredibly sunny, that only later do you realize that there’s not a lot of griminess going on in this film. And even much later, especially for those of us who are slow, we realize that this is actually a visually stunning, wrapped-with-a-bow, very expensive recruiting film. Duh!
Hey, intentions or no, Act of Valor does look great. The centerpiece of the whole movie is the rescue of the doctor, which is a well-organized mission complete with a huge amount of people occupying planes, boats and trucks. This sequence is well-timed, well-edited, very tense, and when the violence occurs, it’s all very exciting. (the fact that they’re using live ammunition is really driven home in one shot where a soldier is hit when a machine gun pokes holes in a rapid horizontal line in a wall- imagine the timing that was necessary!) The whole jungle sequence, especially with the shots of the boat traveling slowly, quietly on the river reminded me of Vittorio Storato’s great cinematography in Apocalypse Now.
As far as non-actors in the leads goes, McCoy and Waugh did manage, it seems, to get the pick of the crop of SEAL thespians. (I could only imagine what the auditions must have looked like.) The actors actually seem pretty comfortable in their roles, even though there is a slight sense of stiffness in their readings. The soldiers’ reworking of the dialogue probably helped a great deal. Among the men, the squadron leader comes across the best, particularly in a cat-and-mousey scene he has with a charismatic drug kingpin named Christo (Alex Veadov, looking rather Christ-like himself).
Frankly, the sincerity behind the performances and just the whole feeling of dedication from the SEALS covers a multitude of sins. The commands and responses during operations sound authentic; the banter during down time sounds a bit like amateurs saying lines written for them, but again, the sincerity of the soldier-actors kicks in, and you just go with it. As a matter of fact, I found myself covering up some shortcomings the movie has, just because of the abundant good intentions.
Something not so easily forgiven, however, is the use of some fairly ancient clichés in the plotting. (POSSIBLE SPOILERS!) Most glaring in my mind is the one about the SEAL who talks about the rescue mission being his last mission before retirement- as soon as you hear that, you pretty much know what’s coming next; this soldier should have learned after watching Sands of Iwo Jima that saying something affirming the goodness of one’s life in a war movie is a prelude to disaster. The wife of one of the men is pregnant, and although the scenes between the man and wife are fairly poignant, it doesn’t hide the fact that you’ve seen it before. By the time the movie culminates in a full military funeral, though, you are overwhelmed with compassion and gratitude for these men.
Act of Valor is calculated, to be sure, but it is a satisfying action picture. I’m much more dove than hawk, but it did make me feel respectful of our special forces. Just like it wanted me to.
2012 Oscar Telecast Wrap-up
BTW: Did you enjoy the Oscar telecast? Only eight minutes overtime! I liked the pacing, and I enjoyed Billy Crystal; I hope he returns as host. I felt that I would be happy if The Artist, The Descendants, or Hugo would win, so I was not disappointed when The Artist won. I saw all but one of the Best Picture nominees, Tree of Life. I still have the DVD from Family Video in my bag, but I’m really nervous about seeing it; it’s an hour shorter than Malcolm X, so it’s not the longest movie I’ve seen, but I don’t want to be frustrated for two hours and nineteen minutes.
I’ll get to it.
Octavia Spencer and Christopher Plummer were a lock, I felt, for The Help and Beginners respectively; I didn’t see the latter yet, but I love Plummer; as the oldest recipient of an acting prize, he has a great body of work. I was really hoping for George Clooney as Best Actor; he grave a great nuanced, honest, fearless performance and I thought it really was his year, but Jean Dujardin managed to make a not-always-likable character come alive without the benefit of dialogue. Meryl Streep? Stunned. Of course she’s great, probably the greatest actor of our time, but really? I would like to see how the voting on that one went. I did love her acceptance speech, though, and was grateful to see that the Academy is still able to provide surprises. Viola Davis will certainly get her time.
Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.