There’s something discomforting about the new action film, Act of Valor. At its core, it’s an action thriller starring (interestingly enough) actual active duty U.S. Navy SEALs that aims to be an authentic experience, but hidden under all the explosions and gunfire is a recruitment video. There’s no denying it, so I might as well say it: Act of Valor is a propaganda film. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Propaganda films have existed for quite a long time. As cherished as it is today, Casablanca was initially thought of as a propaganda film. The great Charlie Chaplin dabbled in propaganda with his Nazi satire, The Great Dictator. The 1942 best picture winner, Mrs. Miniver, similarly hoped to rally the support of a nation at a time of war. But Act of Valor is different.
Mrs. Miniver, for example, was an even affair. For all its patriotism, the real mark of its power came in the sadness it exemplified. It never shied away from the atrocities of war. The main character’s step daughter is shot and killed in the movie. Her house is destroyed. She maintains a constant level of fear as her husband and older son go off to fight, unaware if she will ever see them again. When bombs drop all around them one night as they lay in their bunker, the younger children wake up screaming and crying and all she can do is hold them and pray they make it through the night. It showed what war could do to a person, a family, a neighborhood and, thus, a country. Act of Valor is the exact opposite. If anything, it portrays violence as exciting and the soldiers in a godly light, as if no harm could ever come of them, a dangerous idea to be sending out to young minds who may end up watching this.
Take, for instance, early in the movie when a soldier is shot in the head, but doesn’t die. Later, one is shot with a rocket that hits him in his stomach and hurls him back towards a wall, but it turns out to be a dud and he brushes it off. Only one soldier death occurs in the entire film and it’s a heroic death at that, sacrificing himself to save others. I dare not question the abilities of our armed forces; such a question is beside the point. The fact remains that the atrocities of war—the pain, the hardship, the struggle—is left largely unexplored. Despite that one death and the constant hail of bullets, Act of Valor never accurately portrays the dangers and risks involved with military work. There’s a lot of nobility to joining the armed forces and my hat is off to those who do, but there’s also a lot of ugliness accompanying it that is absent in the film.
Sitting beside me during the screening was a young, enthusiastic critic and if his reaction is any indication, Act of Valor will be seen as fun and indeed, the action scenes are pretty spectacular, but that’s precisely the point. This shouldn’t be a fun movie. It should be gritty, harsh and sometimes difficult to watch. Instead, its violence is stylish and meant to be cool, a far cry from the harsh reality of such situations. Through all its macho posturing and overt patriotism, Act of Valor is nothing more than a glossed up action movie with a recruitment angle.
But to pretend I wasn’t entertained would be disingenuous. The action scenes are incredible and, if nothing else, the film accurately (at least to my knowledge) portrays the operations that these soldiers carry out (without the repercussions, of course). It’s a contradictory compliment given my previous criticisms, I know, but the film is shot well and it will undoubtedly get the adrenaline pumping in your body, though it’s not without its technical faults.
Because the filmmakers used actual active duty U.S. Navy SEALs, the acting is expectedly weak. Some of the dialogue exchanges are painful to sit through and a personal bond meant to be built between two of the soldiers probably worked well on paper, but is worthless when executed by two people without the acting skills necessary to pull it off. There’s also a problem with perspective throughout the movie’s action scenes when it jumps from the standard filmmaking perspective to a first person one. Most of the soldiers hold their guns up on their right, but they are always shown on the left side of the screen when watching the action through their eyes. It’s a laughable and horribly amateurish mistake.
Joining the armed forces and fighting for our freedom is undoubtedly a heroic deed, but the consequences can be deadly. You wouldn’t know that from watching Act of Valor, though. This thing is so insincere, younger, fragile minds may get the wrong impression of what it means to fight for our country. It’s one of the most altruistic things you can do, yes, but it’s not without its downsides. Although I am still recommending Act of Valor because of its well staged action scenes, I do it with the caveat that viewers are aware of its dishonest propagandist intent.
Act of Valor receives 3/5